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The West Virginia Department of Commerce’s urgency to deliver gas-consuming manufacturing plants for a $83.7 billion partnership with China Energy triggered a series of events that have upended life for thousands of residents in the eastern tip of the Mountain State.

When the Danish insulation company Rockwool announced its plan to construct a factory that is permitted to release a total of 310,291,620 pounds of regulated air pollutants annually across the lush, historic confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the residents of Jefferson County, WV and Loudoun County, VA were taken by surprise. The vocal rejection of the introduction of heavy industry into the landscape is mostly due to the demographics and economy of the proposed site, which is located within the Washington DC Greater Metropolitan Area.  

On a Facebook group with over 10,000 members, including myself, local citizens with diverse backgrounds in science and public policy are furiously delving into the arcana of meteorology, chemical engineering, manufacturing, hydrology, karst geology, natural gas transmission, apian biology, agriculture, ecology, epidemiology, planning, zoning and municipal law to better understand the possible impacts and develop strategies to stop the industrial juggernaut.

As a technology entrepreneur who has suddenly become an activist against the siting of the factory, I can’t help with most of these subjects, but I can shed light on a truly arcane discipline - the dynamics of economic development. With the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) asserting that the project meets state health standards, Rockwool denying any danger and stating unequivocally that its factory will be built, an impending senatorial election of national import and citizens in the vote-rich county organizing against the plant, the coming months will be a case study in electoral politics, moneyed interests and power dynamics in the Mountain State.

To this end, I present three truths and a lie about the economic development game.

Truth #1: Economic development is about jobs.

Economic development is about jobs, but not in the way you might think. It’s not about the jobs created by new businesses and industries attracted to your region; it’s about the jobs of economic development professionals, their friends, relatives and associates. As one who has benefitted, I should know.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is up for re-election. As Governor, he appointed me to the position of Director of Technology and Transformation in the West Virginia Development Office. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In February 2005, a few weeks after his first inauguration, then-Governor Joe Manchin appointed me to the contrived role of “Director of Technology and Transformation” in the West Virginia Development Office (WVDO) at an annual salary of $94,000. Negotiations consisted of the Governor’s Chief of Staff stating that I had to make less than the Governor. The Governor made $95,000.

Previously, the venture capitalists who’d invested $10 million in my video game technology company fired me, moved the high-paying jobs from West Virginia to California and hired a new CEO from Disney. I didn’t want to move and wasn’t really wanted, so I got the job in state economic development.

I was hired by Governor Manchin because I had donated space in my now-vacant building in Martinsburg, WV to the West Virginia Democratic Party for use as its 2004 Eastern Panhandle headquarters. The candidates came, made speeches, got to know me and thanked me for the space. If John Kerry had been elected President, I might have worked at the White House or the US Department of Commerce. As it turned out, Democrats lost pretty much every election up and down the ticket, except for the Governorship, so my consolation prize was a plum job in state government.

In the case of Rockwool’s factory, the massively polluting project would only create 150 jobs and drive away the kinds of companies and industries that would continue to lift up our region. Two of Jefferson County’s biggest employers are institutes of higher education:  American Public University System (at 22,355, eleventh largest employer in the state) and Shepherd University. Over $1 billion in tourism is attracted by the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, River Riders, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and great Airbnb hosts like the Willbillys and the 1815 Stone House on the River

Jefferson County, WV, in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area, is a popular destination for tourists.Willbillies

We also have great jobs in light industry, such as those offered by Royal Vendors, a global leader in refrigerated beverages. Management at Royal Vendors applies cutting-edge queuing theory principles to test cell manufacturing and other innovative systems and processes.

Some of the connections between people and jobs are suspect.

The most noticeable is the job of Woody Thrasher, whose firm Thrasher Engineering began work on the project while he held the office of West Virginia Commerce Secretary. There is also Joy Lewis, the Manager of Business Retention and Expansion at the West Virginia Department of Commerce. Joy is married to Eric Lewis, the President of the Board of Directors of the Jefferson County Development Authority (JCDA) that recruited Rockwool to the proposed site and is one of the most vocal champions of the project. According to a member of the JCDA Board, Eric heavily influenced the selection of Nic Diehl, who previously held Joy's position, as Executive Director of the JCDA. 

Rockwool was recruited to Jefferson County under a cloak of secrecy, requiring shuttle diplomacy between Charleston and Eastern Panhandle to get the deal done. Eric Lewis denies that he and the JCDA have been anything but transparent, yet here he is, caught by citizen journalists bending the truth until it breaks.

In August, Tracy Cannon, whose work was featured in my previous piece, How to Stop A Toxic Factory by Cutting off its Energy Supplyasked Eric at a JCDA special meeting about his refusal, upon direct questioning last year, to state the purpose of the Mountaineer Pipeline and what  projects might consume the gas. Eric categorically denied dissembling on the topic.

Roll tape

It is crystal clear from this video that on July 11, 2017, Eric knows the precise purpose of both the pipeline and the Rockwool project. Rockwool is needed to drive demand for natural gas, which, once brought to Jefferson County, will allow JCDA to recruit additional gas-dependent heavy industry. Interestingly, even though the Rockwool project was “made public” six days earlier, on July 6th, 2017, Eric won’t reveal the nature of the project in this meeting because he doesn’t want to alert the public.

The video concludes with Eric falsely claiming last month to have specifically mentioned Rockwool the previous year.

Members of the JCDA Board of Directors like to point out that they are volunteers who are doing a service to the community and are not being paid for their work. And it’s possible that Woody, Joy, Eric and Nic were all top performers for their respective organizations in their own right, unconnected to each other's activities.

The proposed factory would be fixture in 15 significant vistas across the historic region. It might appear similar to this plant in Eastern Europe, which is not a Rockwool facility.

But all were public servants whose official actions are open to scrutiny, and all appear on records, in statements and at meetings related to the recruitment of Rockwool to Jefferson County.

When I served in the WVDO back in 2005, I was attacked by Verizon for championing public-private partnerships for fiber-to-the-home across the state. Verizon planted stories with Charleston Daily Mail questioning my salary and unusual role. Reporters started calling me. The paper published stories to alarm the taxpayers of the state, with my salary in the headline. Since I was paid a lot more than career WVDO employees, and even more than the executive director, I was an easy target. When I’d come in each morning, I’d get a pat on the back and a shout-out of “makin’ the papers again, I see!”

At one point I was called into the Governor’s Office to brief Governor Manchin on the details of the dispute with Verizon, which was lobbying for a bill to prevent public-private partnerships for municipal broadband. Towards the end of my briefing, it was clear that Governor Manchin understood the importance of telecommunications infrastructure to the citizens of West Virginia, and the fact that Verizon was not likely to bring it if they didn’t have to. He started speculating on the effects of vetoing the Verizon bill, or making sure it died in committee. Interestingly, one of his concerns, along with supporting broadband, was finding a job for Stan Cavendish, the president of Verizon West Virginia, who was sure to be canned if competition was introduced.

Truth #2: Economic development is about power.

At the same time Governor Manchin appointed me to a position at the WVDO, he embarked on an effort to consolidate power that included putting the West Virginia Jobs Investment Trust (WVJIT) and the West Virginia Economic Development Authority (WVEDA) under the administration’s substantial influence and partial control. While economic development was always a political process, the reorganization under the Department of Commerce removed the pretense of independent executive directors and boards.

The first direction I received upon my arrival at the WVDO was to fire Jamie Gaucher, the technology-based economic development manager who reported to me. Jamie wasn’t popular because he didn’t champion government incentives for a deal that had some influential Morgantown investors.

The Rockwool deal is all about incentives and the power to grant them. Ultimately, the burden of providing the incentives comes from the state and county taxpayers, but the authority to provide incentives comes from the Governor through the Secretary of Commerce.

Woody Thrasher served in the capacity of Commerce Secretary between the inauguration of Governor Jim Justice in January 2017 until his firing was announced on June 14th, 2018 due to his poor handling of a $150M federal flood assistance program for which he was responsible, including procurement issues on a $17 million consulting contract, confusion and lack of responsiveness to the victims of devastating 2016 floods across southern West Virginia.

President Donald Trump, left, listens as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, right, speaks at a campaign-style rally at Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington, W.Va., Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, where he announced that he is changing parties from Democrat to Republican. Both President Trump and Governor Justice attended the signing of a $83.7 billion deal between the State of West Virginia and China Energy (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

On May 17, 2017, while Woody was still serving as Secretary of Commerce, his engineering firm Thrasher Engineering was introduced to the JCDA as Rockwool’s site engineer for the still-secret project. On November 9th, 2017, Secretary Thrasher signed an $83.7 billion deal with China Energy for shale gas development and manufacturing projects that would consume large quantities of the gas produced.

The deal was so significant that U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping witnessed Secretary Thrasher and China Energy President Ling Wen sign the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the State of West Virginia and the Chinese energy firm. Governor Jim Justice crowed that the deal was “the largest investment in our state’s history.”

“The massive size of this undertaking and level of collaboration between our two countries is unprecedented,” said Secretary Thrasher in a WV Commerce Department press release. “It required cooperation between state and federal level officials.”

Deals like the one between West Virginia and China Energy, a recent creation of a merger between China’s state-owned coal mining company Shenhua Group and energy producer Guodian Group that positioned China Energy as the world’s largest power company, don’t happen overnight. According to the West Virginia Department of Commerce, Senator Shelley Moore Capito kept the deal front and center with President Trump, Vice President Pence and Secretaries Perry and Ross.

Putting together $83.7 billion dollars of shale gas development, distribution and consumption would have consumed a good deal of the WV Commerce Department resources since about the time Rockwool first visited Jefferson County in January 2017. Over the next several months, the WVDO “spearheaded and negotiated a comprehensive development package using the tools available to promote economic development into West Virginia -- including the extension of infrastructure and other properties along Route 9,” according to a timeline provided by the City of Ranson

It is clear from the secrecy of “Project Shuttle,” the timeline and the urgency to deliver gas-consuming manufacturing plants for the China Energy partnership that binding a binding Rockwool development agreement had to be signed, sealed and delivered before the general public or elected officials could raise an alarm. This video of John Reisenweber’s presentation to the Jefferson County Commission is revealing in many ways.

The countywide elected officials on the commission are only given a cursory overview. The “Payment in Lieu of Tax” (PILOT) agreement is presented as beneficial, when Rockwool would pay a reduced tax rate for a decade. Once they are levied at a full 5%, they are to be assessed on the fully-depreciated salvage value of the equipment. There is clearly going to be a huge impact on water infrastructure, but that is waived off as being covered by a loan from the State of West Virginia that will be repaid from fees.

There is no discussion of pollution because the emissions won’t be made public until a few months later, just before Thanksgiving, in a small notice in a local paper.

In contrast to the Rockwool project, Jefferson County held two public countywide votes on table gaming for the Charles Town race track. At that time, elected officials worked with their constituents to get a good deal for the county that included substantial funding for the school system.

The reason the people of Jefferson County, and our elected officials have so little influence is that the deal was done with Ranson, a small municipality with no connection to the site.

This was clearly intentional. If the project was developed anywhere else, there would have been warning bells and protections for the local citizens.

These “pipestem” annexations are a way to avoid planning and zoning regulations. In this case, the massive impact of the development affects the entire county, yet the City of Ranson can do as it pleases with little recourse. The “connection” of the site at Jefferson Orchards to Ranson is by way of Rt 115 and Rt 9, giving Ranson control only through a technicality. It would be similar if Greenwich, Connecticut or Birmingham, Alabama were given control of the site. Only 50 to 60 people vote in a typical Ranson election, so the oversight is minimal.

The deal was essentially done, with many intermediaries and couriers, between Andy Blake, Ranson City Manager, and Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher. The two men who held all the power.

As an interesting footnote, I didn’t fire Jamie Gaucher. He stayed in West Virginia state government supporting entrepreneurs and recruiting technology companies until 2013. Today, Jamie Gaucher is now Director of Business and Economic Development for Middleburg, VA, part of Loudoun County wine and horse country which may be impacted by the planned Rockwool site.

Truth #3: Economic Development is about the money

My first taste of economic development money came in 1997, just over a year after I’d moved our small but substantial web development firm to Shepherdstown from Baltimore. >Our ragtag team was important enough to the Baltimore tech ecosystem in the early days of the internet that >the Baltimore Sun covered our move to “cyberspace.” One of our claims to early internet fame was >PopeTV, billed as the first live news event covered exclusively for a web audience.

We moved our web development firm from a loft in the Hamden neighborhood of Baltimore, MD to our home a short distance upriver from Shepherdstown, WV .David Levine

We jury-rigged a T1 line, which was huge bandwidth at the time (1.4 MBPS!), to our home in the woods by the river by putting our own equipment on a dry pair of copper wire provisioned by Citizens Communications (“CitCom” as we called it) for $40/month from our house to a neighbor, who ran the local ISP, and then to the tiny “central office” in town. We had some AOL servers in our basement, including iVillage, one of the first websites and online communities for women, as well as the websites for the Penguin Books, NPR and CBS Radio News. We were one of the first companies to offer “24 hour monitoring,” which meant me going down to the basement and rebooting a system in the middle of the night if I got a phone from an unhappy client.

Our employees were scattered around the country, since I had met most of them on a text-based virtual reality system known as the “MOO” (for multi-user object oriented environment) at Xerox PARC. After a time, they started visiting us in Shepherdstown, liking the place and settling here.

Before too long, Monica and I would wake up in the morning to five or six programmers designers in the dining room, kitchen or den with every available surface covered in Cat 5 cabling, SPARC workstations, hubs and manuals.

Somehow, we learned about the WVDO and before too long, we were approved for a loan shared by the WVEDA and One Valley Bank to purchase a small commercial space in Shepherdstown, where we used some of the funds to build a proper server room. One of our first hires was Eric Lewis, now president of the JCDA board of directors, as our accounting manager. At the time, he was in his 20s, recently out of college and commuting to a job as an associate at a CPA firm in Winchester, VA.

In some ways, I’m partly responsible for Eric’s entry into the political sphere. In 1998, our company changed its name to Ultraprise, developed a platform for trading loans on the secondary market raised over $20 million from GE Capital, Citigroup, FBR Technology Venture Partners and others. We were very literally the poster children for high tech in West Virginia, with a poster of me on the wall of West Virginia Development Office.

After we hired investment bankers to explore an initial public offering at the height of the dot-com bubble in 1999, Senator Jay Rockefeller invited Eric and I to his home in Charleston to brief a room full of bankers, lawyers and various rich people on venture capital and entrepreneurship. One of our clients and investors at the time was City National Bank in Charleston. Eric and I sometimes hopped in the car, drove to the Martinsburg airport and went back and forth to Charleston on the City check plane with Dicky, the pilot.

Not knowing anything about protocol at this point, I was in ripped jeans and a Prong t-shirt. Eric was smartly dressed in business casual. When Senator Rockefeller kicked off his 2002 re-election campaign at the Bavarian Inn, he asked Eric and I to put together a guest list of young people so he could start to meet the next generation of voters and Eric became a fixture on the non-profit, economic development and public service board circuit.

Back in those days Eric and I were close friends. We’ve had a few conflicts and disagreements that have strained our relationship, but nothing on par with the current Rockwool fiasco. While Eric is very capable and intelligent, I regard him in this case as an unwitting accomplice of Secretary Thrasher. In coordination with Ranson City Manager Andy Blake, Thrasher used Lewis against his constituents in Jefferson County by exploiting just the right weakness in our system of laws and executing the operation with precision and tact.

About a month before John Reisenweber went before the Jefferson County Commission for approval of the PILOT, which included tax incentives he described as necessary to compete with Virginia, Andy Blake gave a presentation to the City of Ranson Planning Commission on Rockwool. Audio of the >full meeting is available on the Ranson website.

In the following audio clips of the meeting, an unidentified voice, which is most likely Blake, makes it clear that Ranson and Rockwool intend to use the earlier pipestem annexation of Jefferson Orchard to drive the project to completion without allowing the citizens of Jefferson County an opportunity to participate in the process. It was specifically because of these threats to due process that pipestem annexations were made illegal in West Virginia in 2009 through legislation by State Senator Herb Snyder and Representative John Doyle, both of Jefferson County.

“There is no place else in the country that can do this type of expedited process.”

The voice pondered openly about how best to steamroll the process to reduce input, which he characterized as “bickering.” “I can’t tell you whether it’s at church, on a golf course or whatever, ‘What’s the environmental impact?’, ‘What are they emitting?’, ‘What are they producing?’, ‘How far are they gonna be?’ ‘Is there gonna be black smoke coming out?’”

The speaker advised Rockwool to put out a one-page fact sheet for questions “on the golf course, or wherever” with “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we did… so people know what’s going on.” That was the extent of the public education on the industrial plant that would spew massive emissions around the clock all year long.

The firm that represented Rockwool in site selection, Deloitte, is dominant in the energy industry. They are staffed with engineers, economists and consultants that effectively and efficiently analyze regions, states, counties, parcels and plots to narrow the options down to a specific location.

Between 2007 and 2009 I worked at Sewall, an engineering firm based in Maine that is similar to Woody Thrasher’s, but larger. As Vice President, Geospatial Solutions, I managed a team that collected data, wrote software and ran analytics for projects such as wind farms, gas pipelines, paper mills, biofuels plants and industrial sites. Once we populated the geospatial databases with data sets such as tax parcels, critical habitat for protected species, zoning, resources, roads, easements, setbacks, rivers, wetlands, geology, water infrastructure, natural gas lines, power transmission and distribution, income, emissions, schools, churches, historical monuments and parks, we could produce a list of properties and property owners that were suitable, and we could rank-order those properties by weighting the results according to the most important project factors, such as cost or speed.

Rockwool and Deloitte, with the support of the Thrasher Engineering and the WVDO, which has its own geospatial department, certainly had capabilities that exceeded my team at Sewall. With the proper scope and specification, we would have come to the same conclusion as Andy Blake, that only Ranson could deliver the type of expedited process that would site heavy industry directly across the road from an elementary school in county with strong employment, wage growth, zoning and historical significance, “with a single public hearing” in “three months,” which was the committed time period in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Rockwool and Ranson.

Curiously, the timeline and process described by the City of Ranson in >its response to social media outcry against the plant contradict the timeline provided in an unusual public letter dated September 13, 2018, from the JCDA attorney, William F. Rohrbaugh, to the JCDA itself. 

The City of Ranson claimed that the Rockwool project began in the fall of 2016, when the JCDA responded to a Deloitte request as the site selection consultant for a heavy manufacturing facility. In January 2017, according to Ranson, Deloitte and its client visited a couple sites in Jefferson County. Over the next several weeks, the WVDO, JCDA and Ranson continued to provide information that Deloitte requested to narrow down the site selection while inquiring on incentives from the State and local jurisdictions could provide if Rockwool selected Jefferson County.

Heavy industry and elementary schools don't make good neighbors. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

According to Ranson, Rockwool notified the WVDO, JCDA and Ranson that it had selected the Jefferson Orchards site in Ranson in the Spring of 2017, and that Ranson allowed Rockwool to begin construction immediately after its announcement on July 5, 2017.

In contrast, the JCDA’s own attorney states in his letter last week that the WVDO, an agency of the West Virginia Department of Commerce, approached Ranson, the JCDA and Jefferson Utilities, Inc. (“JUI”), which he collectively refers to as the “Jefferson Group,” in March of 2017 with a business prospect that had certain requirements for water and sewer services, among others. According to the JCDA lawyer, the WVDO informed the Jefferson Group that Deloitte had identified two potential sites in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. One of these sites was in Berkeley County, south of Martinsburg, which was eliminated because the Berkeley County water utility did not have sufficient capacity to meet the daily water needs of the prospect.

According to the JCDA attorney, the identity of the prospect was still not disclosed to the JCDA. In fact, a Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreement was entered into directly between the JCDA and Rockwool on February 2nd, 2017.

Why all the confusion on the timeline? How is it possible that these municipal, county and state organizations could present such a conflicting set of facts? As an audience member asked in the Shepherdstown presentation by Eric Lewis, “what is the truth?”

To understand what really happened, we have to go back to December 20, 2004, when Ranson, under the guidance of popular Mayor A. David Hamill, sent the annexation request for Jefferson Orchards to the county for approval. To get a feeling for Mayor Hamill, the following is a quote from President Lyndon B. Johnson that he put at the top of the agenda for every Ranson City Council regular meeting under the heading, “Reflection:”

“But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”

Early in 2005, during my tenure at the WVDO, I received an excited call from >Matt Ward, an enthusiastic Charles Town resident and Washington, DC lawyer who advises local officials on smart growth and development options and helps the towns land federal money.  Matt wanted me to bring the annexation of Jefferson Orchard and the development plans to Governor Manchin’s attention, which I did to the best of my ability.

Mayor David Hamill brought remarkable growth to Ranson, and the kind people love. Wide streets, lighting, shopping, food, offices and jobs. And it is all tied back to 2009.

In 2009, the >Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a federal interagency partnership between Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation (DOT), was established with the goal of ensuring that the agencies’ policies, programs, and funding consider affordable housing, transportation, and environmental protection together. Mayor Hamill had the vision and the instinct to apply to this consolidated grant program for the benefit of his city.

Ranson was selected by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities in October 2010 and awarded $1.4 million in grant funds to serve as a national model for how small rural cities on the fringe of a major metropolitan area can foster sustainable economic development, transit and community livability through targeted and strategic planning.  Ranson was only one of two cities in the country (out of 1,700 who applied) to get this grant package from all >three federal agencies.

City Manager Andy Blake was hired after the significant grant package was awarded to Ranson, just in time to implement the promises made to the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Here is Blake in 2011, explaining the City of Ranson’s smart growth vision:

In September 2011, Ranson held a “mega planning week” with experts in planning and zoning from across the country who came together to help Ranson write its Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Ordinance and design Master Plans for key parcels of land in Ranson. Former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, at the time President of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute and the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, delivered the >keynote address to kick-off a weeklong planning workshop in Ranson. Planning consultants spent the next week working with elected officials, staff and the public to plan the future of Ranson. 

The planning team of consultants spent the next six months detailing every aspect of the program so that Ranson leadership could simply implement the plans.  In April 2012, at the same time it approved the 2012 Comprehensive Plan, Ranson adopted a Form-Based Code (FBC) derived from >SmartCode and approved the rezoning of three large parcels of land using the new FBC. One of the three parcels, officially designated “SmartCode Communities, was Jefferson Orchard, the proposed site for Rockwool.

Before 2012, Ranson had a Euclidean Zoning Ordinance (EZO) which was focused on the type of use allowed on the land. Based on the notion that each space should have one, singular use, in order to separate non-compatible land uses. FBC focuses on building form as it relates to the streetscape and adjacent uses. FBC encourages mixed-use and relies on design concepts and patterns intended to preserve the assets and character of a community.

>Form-based code is a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. FBC is a complete set of regulations, not a mere set of guidelines, adopted into city, town, or county law. The key to FBC is that it relies on trust. The public administrators need to be ethical and judge each application on the merits. FBC doesn’t have strict rules in order to foster creativity, where conventional EZO is has strictly binary, black and white attributes for uses, setbacks, sizes, etc. In FBC, each neighborhood strives to be a complete environment for working, playing, learning, healing and praying, which fosters healthier families, less stress and more vibrant communities.

Jefferson Orchard was intended to be a transit-oriented, mixed-use development featuring a "Special District" for light industry compatible with adjoining neighborhoods.City of Ranson

Within the 2012 Ranson Comprehensive Plan, Jefferson Orchard was highlighted as one of the major redevelopment projects in the region and was selected by the Ranson City Council and the Ranson Planning Commission as a property to demonstrate SmartCode regulations to promote traditional neighborhood, mixed-use, green-focused development. The approved 2012 Comprehensive Plan encouraged a Transit Oriented Development but also allowed a Village District as the minimum goal for implementation. Within the Plan, the relocation of the Duffields MARC Station Stop to Jefferson Orchard was supported. It was designated a preferred growth sector and targeted for expansion for a concentration of jobs and housing.

But what does that mean? How many jobs and how many dwellings were projected?

On June 10, 2011 >Michael Baker presented a “Transportation Development Fee Study” for the Cities of Ranson and Charles Town to determine how much the county could charge developers to pay for the train station and other capital projects. As part of the study, Baker determined that a commercial-only development on the Jefferson Orchard site would deliver 7,700 jobs.

The 2012 rezoning designated a maximum density of 4,300 homes on the site, and when the final mixed-use land development plan was approved, the >Jefferson Orchard site was to include 1,000 homes and 800,000 square feet of commercial office mixed space supporting a total of approximately 3,500 jobs on about 300 acres, with 90 acres of the total still reserved for “Special District - Industrial” (SDI). The job density for the plan is over 11.5 jobs per acre plus the benefits of such amenities such as homes, churches, elderly care, shops, co-working spaces and a train station for the non-industrial acreage alone.  

So what about the SDI designation? There is a big difference between light industry that can work in a Transit Oriented Development and heavy industry such as Rockwool with smokestacks and barbed wire fences. Under enlightened leadership such as that exhibited by Mayor Hamill, the job density of a light industrial district can be substantially higher and better-paying than heavy industry, and in many cases the capital can be retained in the community rather than distributed to global investors.

As an example, Ranson was part of the launch of an important idea known as the Maker Movement. In June 2014, Mayor Hamill was one of only two mayors from across the country invited to the White House for a Maker Faire. >A press release issued by the American Public University System (APUS) touted the Maker Movement as “an effort to provide access to high-tech tools and new approaches for businesses, entrepreneurs and students” and to “promote technology and manufacturing growth… and local community revitalization.”

The Special District - Industrial (SDI) was intended to be fully integrated into, and compatible with, a thriving mixed-use community.

The "Maker Movement" centers on 3D-printers, embedded silicon chips and communications technologies to improve industrial processes.

On June 16, 2015 the Hagerstown Eastern Panhandle Metro Planning Organization (HEPMPO), (coordinator of the original 2011 Transportation Development Fee Study for the cities of Ranson and Charles Town), held a public hearing with the NorthPort Task Force, which included the Cities of Charles Town and Ranson, the MTA/MARC (the regional commuter light rail system), Jefferson Orchards, WV Department of Transportation (WVDOT), Sustainable Strategies (Matt Ward’s consultancy), CSX, Eastern Panhandle Transportation Authority (EPTA), the WVDO and the JCDA. At the hearing, the public learned the details of> the Feasibility Study and Implementation Plan for NorthPort Station, which included a new MARC light rail stop, regional EPTA bus station and 43,000 sq ft of mixed-use development. The $100,000 Study was authorized by the WV State Rail Authority and the Maryland Transit Administration (owners of the MARC train) who signed >agreements in 2013 with the City of Ranson to relocate the outdated Duffields MARC train stop to Jefferson Orchard.

From the City of Ranson website:

“Working with multiple private, state and local partners and landowners (the Northport Task Force), the Hagerstown/Eastern MPO and its consultants developed and presented this study to the City of Ranson.  Northport Station is the proposed centerpiece of a future smart growth transit-oriented development that will also replace the obsolete Duffields Stop on the MARC commuter rail system. This study performed site selection analysis on the Jefferson Orchards property, performed preliminary environmental screening, determined station design layouts and costs, ridership and traffic impacts and provided an implementation plan.”

With local, county, state and federal support, Ranson, Charles Town and Jefferson County were on their way to a bright future. The Huffington Post called the work of Charles Town and Ranson “the gold standard for a concerted, multi-faceted, small-town land use planning effort.”

On July 7, 2015  the City of Ranson adopted the NorthPort Feasibility Study by resolution authorizing the City of Ranson to begin working with the owners of Jefferson Orchard to implement the plan laid out in the Study to establish a multi-modal transportation station that is consistent with the future development of the property as a transit-oriented development.

In October 2015, the owners of Jefferson Orchard agreed to sell the farm with the rezoning approved, the land development plan approved and the agreement to relocate the MARC Train Station. In addition, the MARC train station had completed the design phase. All that was left was to pursue funding through a grant program in conjunction with a developer, complete  engineering and begin construction.

Then, on February 5th, 2016, Mayor Hamill died after serving almost 30 years in that role. He left a final message to the people of ranson that included the statement:

“As Mayor, I do not feel my work is done and there are items I still want to complete. Thanks to the citizens of Ranson, I have had the opportunity to serve them as Mayor for almost thirty years. Again, there are no words to express the appreciation for the trust and confidence that the citizens have given to me to be their leader. I have loved every second of serving and trying to make our City and community a better place to live. We have made so much progress and I only wish I could see Ranson twenty years from now. I know with good stewardship and leadership it will be great. I have so much excitement, confidence and emotion for who and what Ranson is now and what it is going to be in the future.”

Like in a Disney animated feature, the power went not to a new benevolent mayor, but to City Manager Andy Blake and his sidekick >Edward Erfurt IV, Assistant City Manager. Blake was a City Attorney before he became City Manager and Edward was expert in Form Based Code, urban planning and how to manipulate zoning ordinances. Keith “Duke” Pierson, the former Vice Mayor who was appointed mayor of Ranson in February 2016 after Mayor David Hamill’s death, was elected to a full term on June 5, 2016 with a grand total of 126 votes cast in the race.

If Mayor Hamill had been alive when Rockwool made contact through the WVDO in the fall of 2016, one year after Ranson, Charles Town, the WVDO and all the other stakeholders had agreed to the NorthPort Station plan, he would have politely said, “no thank you, we don’t have a place for heavy industry in Ranson.”

Blake and Erfurt, on the other hand, were just the ones to exploit the smallest of procedural loopholes in an attempt to kill the mixed use transit-oriented development plan for Jefferson Orchard, which was required to make NorthPort Station feasible, replace it with heavy industry, and then cover their tracks. The following summary includes only a few of the many anomalous activities.

The SmartCode Zoning Ordinance had a height limit of 90 feet for structures, which was much less than the 210-foot smokestacks required by Rockwool.

Height limits, however, did not apply to attics or raised basements, masts, belfries, clock towers, chimney flues, water tanks, or elevator bulkheads.

The following is from the adopted 2012 SmartCode Zoning Ordinance, under Article 6:

“All storage, utility and infrastructure elements including service areas, loading space, transformers, telephone boxes, garbage cans, dumpsters, condensers, meters, backflow preventers, siamese connections and the like must be located within the second or third layer and concealed from view from any frontage or sidewalk by streetscreens, and opaque gates. Loading and service entries have to be accessed from alleys when available.”

Industrial uses requiring additional height in the SDI may be permitted by administrative waiver, as long as The City Manager or his designee makes the following written findings:

  1. The waiver is >consistent with the provisions of Section 1.2 Intent.
  2. The waiver is >consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
  3. The waiver does not require a Special Exception Permit.
  4. The additional height will not materially endanger the public health or safety or constitute a public nuisance if located where proposed and developed according to the plans and information submitted and approved. 
  5. The additional height will not substantially injure the value of adjoining property; or that the use is a public necessity.
  6. The additional height, if developed according to the plans and information approved, will be in harmony with proximate land uses, and consistent with the purposes of the district.

Rockwool did not meet the Ranson SmartCode Zoning Ordinance, since the required stacks would substantially harm the health and welfare of the neighbors in the community and negatively impacted property values.

So, instead of attempting an administrative waiver, the City Council amended their Ordinance in August of 2017, following a Planning Commission public hearing in July of 2017, by simply adding one word to the list of exemptions from height limits: “stacks.” Then the City removed all the other restrictions within the SDI listed above. The changes can be seen >in the Full Agenda Packet of the July 10, 2017 Ranson Planning Commission Meeting. The explanation was provided by an unidentified voice (most likely Andy Blake) in this clip from the meeting:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8J_ipQaxcg&feature=youtu.be

“I think frankly by the time this project’s over...I don’t think this room is going to be empty. I think you are gonna have people who are against the natural gas line coming in, and you’re gonna have people that are very concerned about the environmental air permit. The more opening there is to discretion, I think the more opportunity there is for a challenge. I would like, if we’re going to do this, what’s the difference between ninety and a hundred when it comes down to it, in a district that is only to itself. If we increase that by right, there is no discretion anymore. The second the client comes in with the building permit, you check the box and you go on with life. Otherwise, they’re going to frankly be looking at me saying, ‘discretion,’ and I’m going to have the public here saying ‘well, what gives you the right. What gives you the right. Why should you be the one who decides. Frankly, I’m willing to take that position. Why? We’re here with the customizable SDI thing. You need 120, then build 120. It shows a good faith compromise, frankly, if we go to them and say, ‘we don’t like your fence, it sucks. So we compromised here so you don’t need to go through a discretionary waiver process but work with on another topic.”

Essentially, Blake is admitting that with the zoning amendments presented that night (and adopted by the City Council in August), the SDI designation (“customizable SDI thing”) gives him the full authority to do anything he pleases, including scrapping the entire transit-oriented development in favor of Rockwool. I’m fairly certain that the words “Special District Industrial” in the geospatial datasets attracted Deloitte and the WVDO in the first place, and Blake exploited this classification in a way that would be evident to those practiced in the art, but opaque to the general public.

Another clue to the plans between the WVDO, Ranson and the JCDA to locate heavy, gas-consuming industry to the site and deprive the county of the Master Planned Transit Oriented Development (homes, stores, jobs, parks and civic buildings) is the listings for the property on the JCDA site and the WV Commerce Department website. The Jefferson Orchards property was up for sale in November 2015 and should have been marketed to developers of mixed-use projects that would fit with the intent of the NorthPort Station plan. Instead, >the West Virginia Commerce Department listing states that the zoning is “Industrial” and that the “zoning application is pending.” The >JCDA listing states that 95 acres are “Industrial” and “295 Acres are mixed-use” but that they “will rezone for larger users.”

The industrial component was not for heavy industrial manufacturing but light industrial that would complement a neighborhood (remember the maker spaces?). Ranson already has an industrial classification for heavy industry. The SDI was clearly for industrial within a community (keeping with the intent of SmartCode, complete neighborhoods).

It is also unclear who authorized the JCDA to state that the Mixed Use could be rezoned for larger users. “Other users” can only mean more industrial. If the JCDA is to have nothing to do with Ranson zoning, this is very suspect.

The ad also states that the water and sewer can be extended to the site to accommodate future industrial development. Who authorized the JCDA to promote these amenities for industrial use on a Transit Oriented Development? Were they purposefully deterring Mixed Use developers? Mixed Use was tied to the MARC Train Project and already had promises from the State of West Virginia for support if it was integrated with the transit-oriented development in order to apply for funding through the >Federal Transit Authority for Transit Oriented Development.  

A key claim in JCDA lawyer Rohrbaugh’s September 13, 2018 letter is “once it was determined that the Jefferson Orchards property met all of the criteria for the proposed manufacturing facility, the State Development Office was able to reach an agreement with the business prospect,” Rockwool, “to bring the manufacturing facility to Jefferson County.”

The problems with this claim are manifold. Ranson voted to approve the PILOT on July 18, 2017, which means it determined that the site met all the conditions before that date. The July 18, 2017 Ranson City Council packet contains the first review of the zoning text amendments from July 10, 2017, that the Ranson Planning Commission recommended for approval.

The July 18, 2017 packet also has the MOU between Rockwool and Ranson with a deadline for rezoning and $1.5 million in payments for the following:

  • $750,000 at the time of the site plan submission (which means the funds are for the approved rezoning because a site plan cannot be submitted if it does not meet the zoning requirements.)
  • $750,000 at the time of building permit submission (which means the funds are for approving the site plan and any other administrative waivers because a building permit cannot be submitted without an approved site plan).

The 120-day deadline, referenced in the July 10, 2017, Ranson Planning Commission meeting as a three-month expedited process, was met. Officially, the zoning ordinance change was approved in August, in September the City Council approved the rezoning which added 100 more acres of SDI (not heavy industrial) and on October 18, 2017, the site plan was approved by the Planning Commission.  

The July 18, 2017 packet also contained a resolution authorizing the Ranson Mayor or a designee to negotiate and execute a mainline sewer extension and financing agreement.

I am not a zoning expert or a planning professional, and my experience consists only of my time in the WVDO and in performing geospatial analysis for an engineering firm, supporting both municipalities and developers in siting major projects. But this timeline and process would suggest that concerned citizens might take a closer look at the >Ranson Zoning Ordinance Regulations, Section 19-19, Amendments on “contract” and “spot” zoning.

  • Contract zoning. Zoning classifications shall not be based on assurances by an applicant, or conditions imposed by the city council that rezoned property will be developed in a particular, limited fashion.

  • Spot zoning. Zoning classifications shall not be adopted in a manner which confers special benefit or places special consideration upon a particular parcel of land, nor adopted in a manner which classifies a relatively small area differently from surrounding property of similar nature and logical use, without sound basis in the purposes of zoning as set forth in this chapter and state law.

If it is found that Ranson relied on either of these practices, the entire Rockwool project could be in jeopardy as “fruit from a poisoned tree.” The careers of individuals within Ranson city government could also be at risk.

Dignitaries, from left: Bruce S. Gordon, NAACP President & CEO, Baltimore; Harold Stewart, NAACP past Grand Master - Prince Hall Masons, Charles Town, W.Va.; James Tolbert, president, West Virginia State Conference NAACP, Charles Town, W.Va.; and George Rutherford, president, Jefferson County NAACP, Ranson, WV. stand around the Great Tablet honoring abolitionist John Brown during a reenactment ceremony Friday, July 14, 2006, at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. The NAACP, Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown and other municipalities and organizations have come out strongly against the Rockwool factory. (AP Photo/ The Journal Newspaper, Ron Agniir)

The next opportunity to halt Rockwool is a JCDA Board meeting scheduled for September 18th, 2018 at 3pm.

To avoid their project being derailed, Rockwool and the JCDA are focusing on keeping JCDA board members in line through threats of lawsuits against the Jefferson County, the JCDA, Charles Town, Ranson and even individual JCDA Board members who do not rubber stamp the water and sewer provisions in the PILOT.

The Rockwool attorney James A. Walls of Spilman Thomas (full disclosure: my real estate firm ThreeSquare LLC has retained Jim Walls in an unrelated matter, discussed below) threatens to take legal action against Jefferson County, seeking $100 million in damages for breaching the contract if the incentives aren’t provided according to the October 3, 2017 PILOT agreement.

According to a Facebook post by Billie P. Garde, an attorney who represents employees in whistleblower retaliation and discrimination before federal and state agencies, “There is no contract upon which to sue. Their letter is based on a legal theory of detrimental reliance -- but every one of the documents that they refer to is replete with caveats that Rockwool acknowledged had not yet happened and over which it could not exercise control.  That’s why the various MOUs have exit clauses for Rockwool if certain conditions do not occur that lets them out of the deal.”  

In her post, Billie continued, “Rockwool apparently relied to its detriment on thinking that the votes it needed were not really ‘votes’ at all – but rubber stamps.  Contracting away your right to vote your conscience is against public policy. Their letter threatens a strategic lawsuit against public participation, a “SLAPP” suit, designed to scare people.  And, sadly, it appears that some of those people currently in positions of authority are now scared, and believe that they must vote in accordance with a deal that they no longer believe in.”

One event that could have potentially altered the thinking of public officials would have been the publication of Rockwool’s Air Quality Permit Notice of Application prior to - rather than six weeks after - their consideration and approval of the PILOT agreement. By November 22, 2017 - the day before Thanksgiving - it was too late.   

Peter Onoszko, A Jefferson County Commissioner, was asleep at the switch when Rockwool published its Air Quality Notice in a small local paper the day before Thanksgiving.Facebook

It is remarkable that the JCDA attorney would publicly give merit to a potentially adverse party’s claim to $100 million in damages, and also offer the opinion that JCDA board members owe a “fiduciary duty to the entity they govern,” that they the liability insurance carrier would likely not cover a breach of contract and that there is “is significant risk that individual board members could incur personal liability for the damages which could be alleged in the event that the JCDA refuses to proceed with the Water Project.”

The West Virginia Code states that county public officials are exempt from personal liability on any contract or obligation. Knowing a couple of the JCDA directors, I’m confident that they would not join a board that did not have a Directors and Officers insurance policy that covered them personally for any gaps in the law.

Most importantly, if you’re on the JCDA, you are sworn to uphold the Constitution of the State of West Virginia and the Constitution of the United States of America - not the wishes of the JCDA directorate. You specifically do not have a fiduciary duty to the organization, because you are a fiduciary of the public.

Fear is a very powerful motivator, but information is more powerful still.

Tomorrow, when the JCDA considers the Water Bond required by Rockwool to cost-effectively develop their project, ten of the twenty JCDA board members need to vote “nay” in order to slow, and perhaps halt, the Rockwool development.

The One Lie: Economic development is out of your hands.

One of the individuals on the JCDA board who will be voting on the Water Bond is Dan Casto, a lawyer who currently practices at the firm of Atwill, Troxell & Leigh, P.C. in Leesburg, VA. I was introduced to Dan by a mutual friend in the summer of 2017 as a local attorney, then with another firm, who was interested in helping entrepreneurs and small businesses in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Dan stopped by my office in Martinsburg, WV, in the same building financed partially through a WVEDA loan that housed my video game technology company and the 2004 campaigns for the Democratic Party.

At the time, I was the CEO of Geostellar, a solar energy platform that was in the process of raising $40 million under an exemption from SEC Registration commonly known as “Reg A+.” Our securities lawyers charged about $1,000/hr, so it was worth a shot to audition Dan with some corporate governance work and a smaller offering under the SEC’s “Regulation Crowdfunding” rules.

Geostellar had some equity investors in Dallas, TX who were also secured creditors. They were making life difficult for us by leveraging both their board seat and their loan covenants to control the company.

The room currently occupied by the Berkeley County Democrats previously housed Geostellar, a solar energy platformRon Blunt

At the same time, a technology known as blockchain was gaining in popularity. In particular, developers were using the technology to create digital “crypto” assets that store, aggregate, transfer and distribute value. Initially, Dan & I collaborated on a model to finance the development of solar energy generation capacity through the sale of crypto assets in order to break the logjam with our investor and save Geostellar from within. When the investor blocked our attempts to issue solar-backed crypto assets, we created a new company called Indeco and continued to pursue the idea.

Before long, it became evident that SEC-compliant crypto assets, also known as security tokens, could be used by entrepreneurs to raise capital for a wide range of projects, bypassing the capital markets. When it was clear that we were not going to be able to save Geostellar from the machinations of the investors, we expanded the mission of Indeco and began developing a platform to align the interests of security token issuers and investors. Dan served for a short period as Indeco’s General Counsel and CFO before leaving for a Leesburg, VA law firm.

In another twist of fate, or evidence of the intimacy of relationships in West Virginia, my real estate company that owns the Martinsburg property hired Jim Walls of Spilman Thomas, who also serves as Rockwool’s attorney, to litigate a case in the Berkeley County court system against the investors from Dallas.

Security tokens promise to radically alter the global economy by essentially eliminating the distorting effects of bankers, brokers, funds and other aggregators and distributors of capital in the capital markets. Access to capital for an individual or small business is governed by the demand of the capital markets for equity and debt securities. With security tokens, any business large or small can “crowdfund” projects on the blockchain by offering a share of the revenue or profits to purchasers of the crypto assets.

As things currently stand, the capital markets have a great deal of control over our lives. Consider the Rockwool project. Capital Research and Management Company, a subsidiary of Capital Group, is both a major shareholder in Rockwool, and a donor to Senator Manchin’s campaign. Many of the citizens in Jefferson County could inadvertently be investors in Rockwool through Mutual Funds and ETFs in their IRAs and 401Ks.

The “investment” in West Virginia from China Energy is not an investment at all. Both Rockwool and China Energy are exploiting the resources and labor of the Mountain State to extract as much value as possible at the lowest possible cost in order to transfer the aggregated capital through Wall Street to shareholders overseas.

What if citizens could put their funds directly into the businesses they wanted to attract to their area, or invest in local businesses that they wanted to see grow and succeed? With new forms of crowdinvesting, individuals can invest in both businesses and municipal infrastructure, and benefit from participation in the long-term income streams they generate.

Part of the acute frustration and anger in Jefferson County is due to the abandonment by Ranson of the previous plan for the 400 acres that constitutes Jefferson Orchards. You can hear that frustration in the voice of Melissa Hynes, a professional planning and zoning administrator who lives in Charles Town and works in Virginia, as she confronts the Charles Town City Counsel on their abdication of responsibility.

First, Melissa paints a clear picture of how valuable 398 acres can be in a mixed use environment, with each of the following sites including parking, landscaping, open space and common areas.

  • Hood College on 50 acres with 2,250 students and 100 jobs.
  • Clarksburg Outlets on 50 acres with 100 stores and about 500 jobs.
  • Catoctin Zoo on 25 acres with 60,000 visitors per year and about 30 jobs.
  • MGM National Harbor on 23 acres with 3,600 jobs.
  • Merriweather Post Pavilion on 40 acres with 350,000 visitors per year and about 100 jobs.
  • Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research on 70 acres with 2,200 jobs.
  • Wells Fargo Home Mortgage Regional Headquarters on 39 acres with 1,541 jobs.

The total acreage of these projects, which could all co-exist in a mixed-use development, is 297 acres with a total 8,071 jobs and an endless stream of visitors. On the remaining 100 acres, with six dwellings per acre, 1,500 full-time residents could live in 600 homes. A popular option, offering dwelling units on the second floor of retail stores, would add additional housing.

Particularly powerful in this video is Melissa’s response to a town council member who states “this plant is being built in the City of Ranson, not in the City of Charles Town… I’m not going to be argued with if this is not our problem.”

As you’ll hear in the clip, Hynes is having none of it. She cites the number of times Ranson is mentioned in the Charles Town comprehensive plan, and the merger of the Ranson and Charles Town planning departments. The City of Charles Town is a party to the NorthPort Station, and the council member acts as if Ranson can simply change the zoning and destroy the project without any recourse. The abdication of responsibility is appalling. And it’s exactly what Thrasher and Blake counted on for the success of their operation.

The source of her rage isn’t just the damage that will be done to the community if Rockwool is built; it is the vision that is being abandoned. The City of Ranson website presented the NorthPort Station as follows:

Working with multiple private, state and local partners and landowners (the Northport Task Force), the Hagerstown/Eastern MPO and its consultants developed and presented this study to the City of Ranson.  Northport Station is the proposed centerpiece of a future smart growth transit-oriented development that will also replace the obsolete Duffields Stop on the MARC commuter rail system. This study performed site selection analysis on the Jefferson Orchards property, performed preliminary environmental screening, determined station design layouts and costs, ridership and traffic impacts and provided an implementation plan.

The HuffingtonPost called the work of Charles Town and Ranson “the gold standard for a concerted, multi-faceted, small-town land use planning effort.” The mixed use development that included homes, offices, shops, restaurants and a commuter rail station was expected to attract and create over 3,500 jobs while improving the quality of the life in the entire region.

The Potomac River flows through Harper's Ferry National Park in West Virginia. | Location: Harper's Ferry National Park, West Virginia, USA.

When the City of Ranson approved the land development plan to accommodate Rockwool on 130 acres of the 400 acres in Jefferson Orchards rezoned for industrial use, it kept up the pretense that that the balance of the property was going to be a Transit Oriented District, a type of urban development that maximizes the amount of residential, business and leisure space within walking distance of public transport.

In reality, Rockwool, through a recorded Land Use Restriction Agreement (October 2017) with the owners of Jefferson Orchard, Rockwool prohibited homes, churches, nursing homes, inpatient rehab centers and other uses on 212 acres of Jefferson Orchards. Keep in mind that Ranson rezoned Jefferson Orchards to have any additional 100 acres of Special District Industrial (total SDI 190 acres), so this 212 acre restriction consumes the rest of “non-SDI”Jefferson Orchards. The agreement also places further restrictions not permitting office, retail or restaurants within 1,000 feet of the eastern boundary of Rockwool. And if that was not enough - Rockwool also recorded a “right to first refusal across the remaining land” just in case the restrictions don’t keep the “unwanted” uses out.

Rockwool is a 24/7/365 operation with three shifts, 2 smokestacks and at least 80 trucks a day hauling the leftovers of coal and steel and who knows what else. For the sake of argument, let’s say some employers can pass the Land Use Restrictions test and the Right to First Refusal test - who wants to be neighbors with heavy industrial….other than more heavy industrial. Ranson would get another heavy industrial factory with the average of 1 job per acre, instead of the 11.5 jobs or more per acre in the mixed-use model. This is clearly to the benefit of China Energy and Mountaineer Gas, not the citizens of Jefferson County.

In addition to the 3,500 jobs being traded for 150 Jefferson County will lose millions of dollars in impact fees for transportation projects (such as train stations). Industrial users pay only $1,000 per 1,000 square feet of building, which adds up to $430,000, compared to $3,200 per single family home. The study states that the planned yield for the development is 872,000 square feet of commercial, office and retail development, 517 single family houses, 290 townhomes and 248 multi-family units, 517 single family houses, 290 townhomes, and 248 multi-family units for a total impact fee of $5.2 million.

Another loss for Jefferson County is federal funds, which are necessary for this type of smart development. As the Huffington Post states, “In this case, the communities benefited greatly from federal funding that has since become harder to tap into because of budget-slashing… The communities sought and leveraged several sources of federal funding into an innovative and quite comprehensive planning exercise. Drawing upon support from the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, and from the Environmental Protection Agency - collectively, the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities.”

Now, rather than be in partnership with the State of WV and the Federal Government on a program to improve the quality of life and economy of Jefferson County, Melissa and other local and state taxpayers are subsidizing two global corporations, Rockwool and China Energy.

In the 2018 senate primaries, Senator Manchin’s arch-enemy, Don Blankenship, a coal baron who served a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards, lost the Republican nomination. He was widely mocked for this absurd ad that invokes “jobs for China people” from the “China family” of “Cocaine Mitch.”

While the xenophobia is repugnant, the only way the economics work on the trade of 3,500 jobs for 150 jobs is if your primary consideration is the massive amounts of natural gas that will be consumed to provide China Energy a return on their investment, and secondarily consider the benefits to Rockwool’s investors. Nowhere in the equation are the citizens of Jefferson County.

The JCDA board members made a solemn oath upon taking office to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of West Virginia, and to faithfully discharge and perform the duties of a member of the Jefferson County Development Authority to the best of their skill and judgement, and according to the law.

According to Article 14 of the US Constitution, a state may not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

As a constituent, I intend to appear at the JCDA board meeting on September 18th in order to make the case, within the two minutes of alloted time, that the constitutional rights of Jefferson County citizens to due process were denied through the actions of State of West Virginia, through the Department of Commerce, West Virginia Development Office and the City of Ranson when they unilaterally terminated the mixed-use, transit-oriented development sponsored in partnership with my elected representatives and replace it with a factory that deprives us of life, liberty and property.

To bring the story full circle, on September 27, Senator Manchin will be in Martinsburg for a “Rally in the Panhandle” event organized by the Berkeley County Democratic Party, which operates out of my building in Martinsburg. For many of us in the Eastern Panhandle, this has become an election hinging on a few very significant issue, the first and foremost of which is Rockwool.

Rockwool is a bi-partisan topic. Chris Kinnan, a leader of Jefferson County Vision, makes the conservative case against Rockwool in a video from>This Week in Morgan County, hosted by Russell Mokhiber.

I plan to contact Senator Manchin and make it known that unless he uses the platform of the Rally to wholeheartedly commit to working with his constituents in Jefferson County, Governor Justice and all involved parties to end the nightmare of Rockwool and bring back the NorthPort mixed-use transit-oriented plan, the Democratic Party will be evicted from my building the morning after the Rally.

After working with Senator Manchin in Charleston, I know him to be an exceptionally responsive and committed public servant. He has a genuinely big heart and wants what is best for his constituents.

I do not know if this will move him to act, but he should know that the voters of Jefferson County can decide whether he has a job come next year.

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 21, 2018

After the publication of this article, a representative of Rockwool contacted Forbes to say that Rockwool is a green company making environmentally-sustainable insulation. Rockwool will be a sponsor of ClimateWeek in New York City next week.

The group of citizens known on Facebook as Concerned Citizens Against Rockwool-Ranson and on Twitter as @StopRockwool plan to demonstrate against the company at ClimateWeek, and are mobilizing an online campaign to argue that the reason Rockwool insulation may be less toxic than the competition is due to the heavy emissions released into the environment during the manufacturing process.

The author was contacted by Senator Manchin, who is organizing a meeting of citizens, local and county public officials and Rockwool. My description of that call is posted on my company blog.

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The West Virginia Department of Commerce’s urgency to deliver gas-consuming manufacturing plants for a $83.7 billion partnership with China Energy triggered a series of events that have upended life for thousands of residents in the eastern tip of the Mountain State.

When the Danish insulation company Rockwool announced its plan to construct a factory that is permitted to release a total of 310,291,620 pounds of regulated air pollutants annually across the lush, historic confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, the residents of Jefferson County, WV and Loudoun County, VA were taken by surprise. The vocal rejection of the introduction of heavy industry into the landscape is mostly due to the demographics and economy of the proposed site, which is located within the Washington DC Greater Metropolitan Area.  

On a Facebook group with over 10,000 members, including myself, local citizens with diverse backgrounds in science and public policy are furiously delving into the arcana of meteorology, chemical engineering, manufacturing, hydrology, karst geology, natural gas transmission, apian biology, agriculture, ecology, epidemiology, planning, zoning and municipal law to better understand the possible impacts and develop strategies to stop the industrial juggernaut.

As a technology entrepreneur who has suddenly become an activist against the siting of the factory, I can’t help with most of these subjects, but I can shed light on a truly arcane discipline - the dynamics of economic development. With the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) asserting that the project meets state health standards, Rockwool denying any danger and stating unequivocally that its factory will be built, an impending senatorial election of national import and citizens in the vote-rich county organizing against the plant, the coming months will be a case study in electoral politics, moneyed interests and power dynamics in the Mountain State.

To this end, I present three truths and a lie about the economic development game.

Truth #1: Economic development is about jobs.

Economic development is about jobs, but not in the way you might think. It’s not about the jobs created by new businesses and industries attracted to your region; it’s about the jobs of economic development professionals, their friends, relatives and associates. As one who has benefitted, I should know.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is up for re-election. As Governor, he appointed me to the position of Director of Technology and Transformation in the West Virginia Development Office. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In February 2005, a few weeks after his first inauguration, then-Governor Joe Manchin appointed me to the contrived role of “Director of Technology and Transformation” in the West Virginia Development Office (WVDO) at an annual salary of $94,000. Negotiations consisted of the Governor’s Chief of Staff stating that I had to make less than the Governor. The Governor made $95,000.

Previously, the venture capitalists who’d invested $10 million in my video game technology company fired me, moved the high-paying jobs from West Virginia to California and hired a new CEO from Disney. I didn’t want to move and wasn’t really wanted, so I got the job in state economic development.

I was hired by Governor Manchin because I had donated space in my now-vacant building in Martinsburg, WV to the West Virginia Democratic Party for use as its 2004 Eastern Panhandle headquarters. The candidates came, made speeches, got to know me and thanked me for the space. If John Kerry had been elected President, I might have worked at the White House or the US Department of Commerce. As it turned out, Democrats lost pretty much every election up and down the ticket, except for the Governorship, so my consolation prize was a plum job in state government.

In the case of Rockwool’s factory, the massively polluting project would only create 150 jobs and drive away the kinds of companies and industries that would continue to lift up our region. Two of Jefferson County’s biggest employers are institutes of higher education:  American Public University System (at 22,355, eleventh largest employer in the state) and Shepherd University. Over $1 billion in tourism is attracted by the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, River Riders, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and great Airbnb hosts like the Willbillys and the 1815 Stone House on the River

Jefferson County, WV, in the Washington, DC Metropolitan Area, is a popular destination for tourists.Willbillies

We also have great jobs in light industry, such as those offered by Royal Vendors, a global leader in refrigerated beverages. Management at Royal Vendors applies cutting-edge queuing theory principles to test cell manufacturing and other innovative systems and processes.

Some of the connections between people and jobs are suspect.

The most noticeable is the job of Woody Thrasher, whose firm Thrasher Engineering began work on the project while he held the office of West Virginia Commerce Secretary. There is also Joy Lewis, the Manager of Business Retention and Expansion at the West Virginia Department of Commerce. Joy is married to Eric Lewis, the President of the Board of Directors of the Jefferson County Development Authority (JCDA) that recruited Rockwool to the proposed site and is one of the most vocal champions of the project. According to a member of the JCDA Board, Eric heavily influenced the selection of Nic Diehl, who previously held Joy's position, as Executive Director of the JCDA. 

Rockwool was recruited to Jefferson County under a cloak of secrecy, requiring shuttle diplomacy between Charleston and Eastern Panhandle to get the deal done. Eric Lewis denies that he and the JCDA have been anything but transparent, yet here he is, caught by citizen journalists bending the truth until it breaks.

In August, Tracy Cannon, whose work was featured in my previous piece, How to Stop A Toxic Factory by Cutting off its Energy Supplyasked Eric at a JCDA special meeting about his refusal, upon direct questioning last year, to state the purpose of the Mountaineer Pipeline and what  projects might consume the gas. Eric categorically denied dissembling on the topic.

Roll tape

It is crystal clear from this video that on July 11, 2017, Eric knows the precise purpose of both the pipeline and the Rockwool project. Rockwool is needed to drive demand for natural gas, which, once brought to Jefferson County, will allow JCDA to recruit additional gas-dependent heavy industry. Interestingly, even though the Rockwool project was “made public” six days earlier, on July 6th, 2017, Eric won’t reveal the nature of the project in this meeting because he doesn’t want to alert the public.

The video concludes with Eric falsely claiming last month to have specifically mentioned Rockwool the previous year.

Members of the JCDA Board of Directors like to point out that they are volunteers who are doing a service to the community and are not being paid for their work. And it’s possible that Woody, Joy, Eric and Nic were all top performers for their respective organizations in their own right, unconnected to each other's activities.

The proposed factory would be fixture in 15 significant vistas across the historic region. It might appear similar to this plant in Eastern Europe, which is not a Rockwool facility.

But all were public servants whose official actions are open to scrutiny, and all appear on records, in statements and at meetings related to the recruitment of Rockwool to Jefferson County.

When I served in the WVDO back in 2005, I was attacked by Verizon for championing public-private partnerships for fiber-to-the-home across the state. Verizon planted stories with Charleston Daily Mail questioning my salary and unusual role. Reporters started calling me. The paper published stories to alarm the taxpayers of the state, with my salary in the headline. Since I was paid a lot more than career WVDO employees, and even more than the executive director, I was an easy target. When I’d come in each morning, I’d get a pat on the back and a shout-out of “makin’ the papers again, I see!”

At one point I was called into the Governor’s Office to brief Governor Manchin on the details of the dispute with Verizon, which was lobbying for a bill to prevent public-private partnerships for municipal broadband. Towards the end of my briefing, it was clear that Governor Manchin understood the importance of telecommunications infrastructure to the citizens of West Virginia, and the fact that Verizon was not likely to bring it if they didn’t have to. He started speculating on the effects of vetoing the Verizon bill, or making sure it died in committee. Interestingly, one of his concerns, along with supporting broadband, was finding a job for Stan Cavendish, the president of Verizon West Virginia, who was sure to be canned if competition was introduced.

Truth #2: Economic development is about power.

At the same time Governor Manchin appointed me to a position at the WVDO, he embarked on an effort to consolidate power that included putting the West Virginia Jobs Investment Trust (WVJIT) and the West Virginia Economic Development Authority (WVEDA) under the administration’s substantial influence and partial control. While economic development was always a political process, the reorganization under the Department of Commerce removed the pretense of independent executive directors and boards.

The first direction I received upon my arrival at the WVDO was to fire Jamie Gaucher, the technology-based economic development manager who reported to me. Jamie wasn’t popular because he didn’t champion government incentives for a deal that had some influential Morgantown investors.

The Rockwool deal is all about incentives and the power to grant them. Ultimately, the burden of providing the incentives comes from the state and county taxpayers, but the authority to provide incentives comes from the Governor through the Secretary of Commerce.

Woody Thrasher served in the capacity of Commerce Secretary between the inauguration of Governor Jim Justice in January 2017 until his firing was announced on June 14th, 2018 due to his poor handling of a $150M federal flood assistance program for which he was responsible, including procurement issues on a $17 million consulting contract, confusion and lack of responsiveness to the victims of devastating 2016 floods across southern West Virginia.

President Donald Trump, left, listens as West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, right, speaks at a campaign-style rally at Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington, W.Va., Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, where he announced that he is changing parties from Democrat to Republican. Both President Trump and Governor Justice attended the signing of a $83.7 billion deal between the State of West Virginia and China Energy (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

On May 17, 2017, while Woody was still serving as Secretary of Commerce, his engineering firm Thrasher Engineering was introduced to the JCDA as Rockwool’s site engineer for the still-secret project. On November 9th, 2017, Secretary Thrasher signed an $83.7 billion deal with China Energy for shale gas development and manufacturing projects that would consume large quantities of the gas produced.

The deal was so significant that U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping witnessed Secretary Thrasher and China Energy President Ling Wen sign the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the State of West Virginia and the Chinese energy firm. Governor Jim Justice crowed that the deal was “the largest investment in our state’s history.”

“The massive size of this undertaking and level of collaboration between our two countries is unprecedented,” said Secretary Thrasher in a WV Commerce Department press release. “It required cooperation between state and federal level officials.”

Deals like the one between West Virginia and China Energy, a recent creation of a merger between China’s state-owned coal mining company Shenhua Group and energy producer Guodian Group that positioned China Energy as the world’s largest power company, don’t happen overnight. According to the West Virginia Department of Commerce, Senator Shelley Moore Capito kept the deal front and center with President Trump, Vice President Pence and Secretaries Perry and Ross.

Putting together $83.7 billion dollars of shale gas development, distribution and consumption would have consumed a good deal of the WV Commerce Department resources since about the time Rockwool first visited Jefferson County in January 2017. Over the next several months, the WVDO “spearheaded and negotiated a comprehensive development package using the tools available to promote economic development into West Virginia -- including the extension of infrastructure and other properties along Route 9,” according to a timeline provided by the City of Ranson

It is clear from the secrecy of “Project Shuttle,” the timeline and the urgency to deliver gas-consuming manufacturing plants for the China Energy partnership that binding a binding Rockwool development agreement had to be signed, sealed and delivered before the general public or elected officials could raise an alarm. This video of John Reisenweber’s presentation to the Jefferson County Commission is revealing in many ways.

The countywide elected officials on the commission are only given a cursory overview. The “Payment in Lieu of Tax” (PILOT) agreement is presented as beneficial, when Rockwool would pay a reduced tax rate for a decade. Once they are levied at a full 5%, they are to be assessed on the fully-depreciated salvage value of the equipment. There is clearly going to be a huge impact on water infrastructure, but that is waived off as being covered by a loan from the State of West Virginia that will be repaid from fees.

There is no discussion of pollution because the emissions won’t be made public until a few months later, just before Thanksgiving, in a small notice in a local paper.

In contrast to the Rockwool project, Jefferson County held two public countywide votes on table gaming for the Charles Town race track. At that time, elected officials worked with their constituents to get a good deal for the county that included substantial funding for the school system.

The reason the people of Jefferson County, and our elected officials have so little influence is that the deal was done with Ranson, a small municipality with no connection to the site.

This was clearly intentional. If the project was developed anywhere else, there would have been warning bells and protections for the local citizens.

These “pipestem” annexations are a way to avoid planning and zoning regulations. In this case, the massive impact of the development affects the entire county, yet the City of Ranson can do as it pleases with little recourse. The “connection” of the site at Jefferson Orchards to Ranson is by way of Rt 115 and Rt 9, giving Ranson control only through a technicality. It would be similar if Greenwich, Connecticut or Birmingham, Alabama were given control of the site. Only 50 to 60 people vote in a typical Ranson election, so the oversight is minimal.

The deal was essentially done, with many intermediaries and couriers, between Andy Blake, Ranson City Manager, and Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher. The two men who held all the power.

As an interesting footnote, I didn’t fire Jamie Gaucher. He stayed in West Virginia state government supporting entrepreneurs and recruiting technology companies until 2013. Today, Jamie Gaucher is now Director of Business and Economic Development for Middleburg, VA, part of Loudoun County wine and horse country which may be impacted by the planned Rockwool site.

Truth #3: Economic Development is about the money

My first taste of economic development money came in 1997, just over a year after I’d moved our small but substantial web development firm to Shepherdstown from Baltimore. >Our ragtag team was important enough to the Baltimore tech ecosystem in the early days of the internet that >the Baltimore Sun covered our move to “cyberspace.” One of our claims to early internet fame was >PopeTV, billed as the first live news event covered exclusively for a web audience.

We moved our web development firm from a loft in the Hamden neighborhood of Baltimore, MD to our home a short distance upriver from Shepherdstown, WV .David Levine

We jury-rigged a T1 line, which was huge bandwidth at the time (1.4 MBPS!), to our home in the woods by the river by putting our own equipment on a dry pair of copper wire provisioned by Citizens Communications (“CitCom” as we called it) for $40/month from our house to a neighbor, who ran the local ISP, and then to the tiny “central office” in town. We had some AOL servers in our basement, including iVillage, one of the first websites and online communities for women, as well as the websites for the Penguin Books, NPR and CBS Radio News. We were one of the first companies to offer “24 hour monitoring,” which meant me going down to the basement and rebooting a system in the middle of the night if I got a phone from an unhappy client.

Our employees were scattered around the country, since I had met most of them on a text-based virtual reality system known as the “MOO” (for multi-user object oriented environment) at Xerox PARC. After a time, they started visiting us in Shepherdstown, liking the place and settling here.

Before too long, Monica and I would wake up in the morning to five or six programmers designers in the dining room, kitchen or den with every available surface covered in Cat 5 cabling, SPARC workstations, hubs and manuals.

Somehow, we learned about the WVDO and before too long, we were approved for a loan shared by the WVEDA and One Valley Bank to purchase a small commercial space in Shepherdstown, where we used some of the funds to build a proper server room. One of our first hires was Eric Lewis, now president of the JCDA board of directors, as our accounting manager. At the time, he was in his 20s, recently out of college and commuting to a job as an associate at a CPA firm in Winchester, VA.

In some ways, I’m partly responsible for Eric’s entry into the political sphere. In 1998, our company changed its name to Ultraprise, developed a platform for trading loans on the secondary market raised over $20 million from GE Capital, Citigroup, FBR Technology Venture Partners and others. We were very literally the poster children for high tech in West Virginia, with a poster of me on the wall of West Virginia Development Office.

After we hired investment bankers to explore an initial public offering at the height of the dot-com bubble in 1999, Senator Jay Rockefeller invited Eric and I to his home in Charleston to brief a room full of bankers, lawyers and various rich people on venture capital and entrepreneurship. One of our clients and investors at the time was City National Bank in Charleston. Eric and I sometimes hopped in the car, drove to the Martinsburg airport and went back and forth to Charleston on the City check plane with Dicky, the pilot.

Not knowing anything about protocol at this point, I was in ripped jeans and a Prong t-shirt. Eric was smartly dressed in business casual. When Senator Rockefeller kicked off his 2002 re-election campaign at the Bavarian Inn, he asked Eric and I to put together a guest list of young people so he could start to meet the next generation of voters and Eric became a fixture on the non-profit, economic development and public service board circuit.

Back in those days Eric and I were close friends. We’ve had a few conflicts and disagreements that have strained our relationship, but nothing on par with the current Rockwool fiasco. While Eric is very capable and intelligent, I regard him in this case as an unwitting accomplice of Secretary Thrasher. In coordination with Ranson City Manager Andy Blake, Thrasher used Lewis against his constituents in Jefferson County by exploiting just the right weakness in our system of laws and executing the operation with precision and tact.

About a month before John Reisenweber went before the Jefferson County Commission for approval of the PILOT, which included tax incentives he described as necessary to compete with Virginia, Andy Blake gave a presentation to the City of Ranson Planning Commission on Rockwool. Audio of the >full meeting is available on the Ranson website.

In the following audio clips of the meeting, an unidentified voice, which is most likely Blake, makes it clear that Ranson and Rockwool intend to use the earlier pipestem annexation of Jefferson Orchard to drive the project to completion without allowing the citizens of Jefferson County an opportunity to participate in the process. It was specifically because of these threats to due process that pipestem annexations were made illegal in West Virginia in 2009 through legislation by State Senator Herb Snyder and Representative John Doyle, both of Jefferson County.

“There is no place else in the country that can do this type of expedited process.”

The voice pondered openly about how best to steamroll the process to reduce input, which he characterized as “bickering.” “I can’t tell you whether it’s at church, on a golf course or whatever, ‘What’s the environmental impact?’, ‘What are they emitting?’, ‘What are they producing?’, ‘How far are they gonna be?’ ‘Is there gonna be black smoke coming out?’”

The speaker advised Rockwool to put out a one-page fact sheet for questions “on the golf course, or wherever” with “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we did… so people know what’s going on.” That was the extent of the public education on the industrial plant that would spew massive emissions around the clock all year long.

The firm that represented Rockwool in site selection, Deloitte, is dominant in the energy industry. They are staffed with engineers, economists and consultants that effectively and efficiently analyze regions, states, counties, parcels and plots to narrow the options down to a specific location.

Between 2007 and 2009 I worked at Sewall, an engineering firm based in Maine that is similar to Woody Thrasher’s, but larger. As Vice President, Geospatial Solutions, I managed a team that collected data, wrote software and ran analytics for projects such as wind farms, gas pipelines, paper mills, biofuels plants and industrial sites. Once we populated the geospatial databases with data sets such as tax parcels, critical habitat for protected species, zoning, resources, roads, easements, setbacks, rivers, wetlands, geology, water infrastructure, natural gas lines, power transmission and distribution, income, emissions, schools, churches, historical monuments and parks, we could produce a list of properties and property owners that were suitable, and we could rank-order those properties by weighting the results according to the most important project factors, such as cost or speed.

Rockwool and Deloitte, with the support of the Thrasher Engineering and the WVDO, which has its own geospatial department, certainly had capabilities that exceeded my team at Sewall. With the proper scope and specification, we would have come to the same conclusion as Andy Blake, that only Ranson could deliver the type of expedited process that would site heavy industry directly across the road from an elementary school in county with strong employment, wage growth, zoning and historical significance, “with a single public hearing” in “three months,” which was the committed time period in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Rockwool and Ranson.

Curiously, the timeline and process described by the City of Ranson in >its response to social media outcry against the plant contradict the timeline provided in an unusual public letter dated September 13, 2018, from the JCDA attorney, William F. Rohrbaugh, to the JCDA itself. 

The City of Ranson claimed that the Rockwool project began in the fall of 2016, when the JCDA responded to a Deloitte request as the site selection consultant for a heavy manufacturing facility. In January 2017, according to Ranson, Deloitte and its client visited a couple sites in Jefferson County. Over the next several weeks, the WVDO, JCDA and Ranson continued to provide information that Deloitte requested to narrow down the site selection while inquiring on incentives from the State and local jurisdictions could provide if Rockwool selected Jefferson County.

Heavy industry and elementary schools don't make good neighbors. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

According to Ranson, Rockwool notified the WVDO, JCDA and Ranson that it had selected the Jefferson Orchards site in Ranson in the Spring of 2017, and that Ranson allowed Rockwool to begin construction immediately after its announcement on July 5, 2017.

In contrast, the JCDA’s own attorney states in his letter last week that the WVDO, an agency of the West Virginia Department of Commerce, approached Ranson, the JCDA and Jefferson Utilities, Inc. (“JUI”), which he collectively refers to as the “Jefferson Group,” in March of 2017 with a business prospect that had certain requirements for water and sewer services, among others. According to the JCDA lawyer, the WVDO informed the Jefferson Group that Deloitte had identified two potential sites in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. One of these sites was in Berkeley County, south of Martinsburg, which was eliminated because the Berkeley County water utility did not have sufficient capacity to meet the daily water needs of the prospect.

According to the JCDA attorney, the identity of the prospect was still not disclosed to the JCDA. In fact, a Mutual Non-Disclosure Agreement was entered into directly between the JCDA and Rockwool on February 2nd, 2017.

Why all the confusion on the timeline? How is it possible that these municipal, county and state organizations could present such a conflicting set of facts? As an audience member asked in the Shepherdstown presentation by Eric Lewis, “what is the truth?”

To understand what really happened, we have to go back to December 20, 2004, when Ranson, under the guidance of popular Mayor A. David Hamill, sent the annexation request for Jefferson Orchards to the county for approval. To get a feeling for Mayor Hamill, the following is a quote from President Lyndon B. Johnson that he put at the top of the agenda for every Ranson City Council regular meeting under the heading, “Reflection:”

“But most of all, the Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives matches the marvelous products of our labor.”

Early in 2005, during my tenure at the WVDO, I received an excited call from >Matt Ward, an enthusiastic Charles Town resident and Washington, DC lawyer who advises local officials on smart growth and development options and helps the towns land federal money.  Matt wanted me to bring the annexation of Jefferson Orchard and the development plans to Governor Manchin’s attention, which I did to the best of my ability.

Mayor David Hamill brought remarkable growth to Ranson, and the kind people love. Wide streets, lighting, shopping, food, offices and jobs. And it is all tied back to 2009.

In 2009, the >Partnership for Sustainable Communities, a federal interagency partnership between Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Transportation (DOT), was established with the goal of ensuring that the agencies’ policies, programs, and funding consider affordable housing, transportation, and environmental protection together. Mayor Hamill had the vision and the instinct to apply to this consolidated grant program for the benefit of his city.

Ranson was selected by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities in October 2010 and awarded $1.4 million in grant funds to serve as a national model for how small rural cities on the fringe of a major metropolitan area can foster sustainable economic development, transit and community livability through targeted and strategic planning.  Ranson was only one of two cities in the country (out of 1,700 who applied) to get this grant package from all >three federal agencies.

City Manager Andy Blake was hired after the significant grant package was awarded to Ranson, just in time to implement the promises made to the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Here is Blake in 2011, explaining the City of Ranson’s smart growth vision:

In September 2011, Ranson held a “mega planning week” with experts in planning and zoning from across the country who came together to help Ranson write its Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Ordinance and design Master Plans for key parcels of land in Ranson. Former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, at the time President of Smart Growth America’s Leadership Institute and the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, delivered the >keynote address to kick-off a weeklong planning workshop in Ranson. Planning consultants spent the next week working with elected officials, staff and the public to plan the future of Ranson. 

The planning team of consultants spent the next six months detailing every aspect of the program so that Ranson leadership could simply implement the plans.  In April 2012, at the same time it approved the 2012 Comprehensive Plan, Ranson adopted a Form-Based Code (FBC) derived from >SmartCode and approved the rezoning of three large parcels of land using the new FBC. One of the three parcels, officially designated “SmartCode Communities, was Jefferson Orchard, the proposed site for Rockwool.

Before 2012, Ranson had a Euclidean Zoning Ordinance (EZO) which was focused on the type of use allowed on the land. Based on the notion that each space should have one, singular use, in order to separate non-compatible land uses. FBC focuses on building form as it relates to the streetscape and adjacent uses. FBC encourages mixed-use and relies on design concepts and patterns intended to preserve the assets and character of a community.

>Form-based code is a land development regulation that fosters predictable built results and a high-quality public realm by using physical form (rather than separation of uses) as the organizing principle for the code. FBC is a complete set of regulations, not a mere set of guidelines, adopted into city, town, or county law. The key to FBC is that it relies on trust. The public administrators need to be ethical and judge each application on the merits. FBC doesn’t have strict rules in order to foster creativity, where conventional EZO is has strictly binary, black and white attributes for uses, setbacks, sizes, etc. In FBC, each neighborhood strives to be a complete environment for working, playing, learning, healing and praying, which fosters healthier families, less stress and more vibrant communities.

Jefferson Orchard was intended to be a transit-oriented, mixed-use development featuring a "Special District" for light industry compatible with adjoining neighborhoods.City of Ranson

Within the 2012 Ranson Comprehensive Plan, Jefferson Orchard was highlighted as one of the major redevelopment projects in the region and was selected by the Ranson City Council and the Ranson Planning Commission as a property to demonstrate SmartCode regulations to promote traditional neighborhood, mixed-use, green-focused development. The approved 2012 Comprehensive Plan encouraged a Transit Oriented Development but also allowed a Village District as the minimum goal for implementation. Within the Plan, the relocation of the Duffields MARC Station Stop to Jefferson Orchard was supported. It was designated a preferred growth sector and targeted for expansion for a concentration of jobs and housing.

But what does that mean? How many jobs and how many dwellings were projected?

On June 10, 2011 >Michael Baker presented a “Transportation Development Fee Study” for the Cities of Ranson and Charles Town to determine how much the county could charge developers to pay for the train station and other capital projects. As part of the study, Baker determined that a commercial-only development on the Jefferson Orchard site would deliver 7,700 jobs.

The 2012 rezoning designated a maximum density of 4,300 homes on the site, and when the final mixed-use land development plan was approved, the >Jefferson Orchard site was to include 1,000 homes and 800,000 square feet of commercial office mixed space supporting a total of approximately 3,500 jobs on about 300 acres, with 90 acres of the total still reserved for “Special District - Industrial” (SDI). The job density for the plan is over 11.5 jobs per acre plus the benefits of such amenities such as homes, churches, elderly care, shops, co-working spaces and a train station for the non-industrial acreage alone.  

So what about the SDI designation? There is a big difference between light industry that can work in a Transit Oriented Development and heavy industry such as Rockwool with smokestacks and barbed wire fences. Under enlightened leadership such as that exhibited by Mayor Hamill, the job density of a light industrial district can be substantially higher and better-paying than heavy industry, and in many cases the capital can be retained in the community rather than distributed to global investors.

As an example, Ranson was part of the launch of an important idea known as the Maker Movement. In June 2014, Mayor Hamill was one of only two mayors from across the country invited to the White House for a Maker Faire. >A press release issued by the American Public University System (APUS) touted the Maker Movement as “an effort to provide access to high-tech tools and new approaches for businesses, entrepreneurs and students” and to “promote technology and manufacturing growth… and local community revitalization.”

The Special District - Industrial (SDI) was intended to be fully integrated into, and compatible with, a thriving mixed-use community.

The "Maker Movement" centers on 3D-printers, embedded silicon chips and communications technologies to improve industrial processes.

On June 16, 2015 the Hagerstown Eastern Panhandle Metro Planning Organization (HEPMPO), (coordinator of the original 2011 Transportation Development Fee Study for the cities of Ranson and Charles Town), held a public hearing with the NorthPort Task Force, which included the Cities of Charles Town and Ranson, the MTA/MARC (the regional commuter light rail system), Jefferson Orchards, WV Department of Transportation (WVDOT), Sustainable Strategies (Matt Ward’s consultancy), CSX, Eastern Panhandle Transportation Authority (EPTA), the WVDO and the JCDA. At the hearing, the public learned the details of> the Feasibility Study and Implementation Plan for NorthPort Station, which included a new MARC light rail stop, regional EPTA bus station and 43,000 sq ft of mixed-use development. The $100,000 Study was authorized by the WV State Rail Authority and the Maryland Transit Administration (owners of the MARC train) who signed >agreements in 2013 with the City of Ranson to relocate the outdated Duffields MARC train stop to Jefferson Orchard.

From the City of Ranson website:

“Working with multiple private, state and local partners and landowners (the Northport Task Force), the Hagerstown/Eastern MPO and its consultants developed and presented this study to the City of Ranson.  Northport Station is the proposed centerpiece of a future smart growth transit-oriented development that will also replace the obsolete Duffields Stop on the MARC commuter rail system. This study performed site selection analysis on the Jefferson Orchards property, performed preliminary environmental screening, determined station design layouts and costs, ridership and traffic impacts and provided an implementation plan.”

With local, county, state and federal support, Ranson, Charles Town and Jefferson County were on their way to a bright future. The Huffington Post called the work of Charles Town and Ranson “the gold standard for a concerted, multi-faceted, small-town land use planning effort.”

On July 7, 2015  the City of Ranson adopted the NorthPort Feasibility Study by resolution authorizing the City of Ranson to begin working with the owners of Jefferson Orchard to implement the plan laid out in the Study to establish a multi-modal transportation station that is consistent with the future development of the property as a transit-oriented development.

In October 2015, the owners of Jefferson Orchard agreed to sell the farm with the rezoning approved, the land development plan approved and the agreement to relocate the MARC Train Station. In addition, the MARC train station had completed the design phase. All that was left was to pursue funding through a grant program in conjunction with a developer, complete  engineering and begin construction.

Then, on February 5th, 2016, Mayor Hamill died after serving almost 30 years in that role. He left a final message to the people of ranson that included the statement:

“As Mayor, I do not feel my work is done and there are items I still want to complete. Thanks to the citizens of Ranson, I have had the opportunity to serve them as Mayor for almost thirty years. Again, there are no words to express the appreciation for the trust and confidence that the citizens have given to me to be their leader. I have loved every second of serving and trying to make our City and community a better place to live. We have made so much progress and I only wish I could see Ranson twenty years from now. I know with good stewardship and leadership it will be great. I have so much excitement, confidence and emotion for who and what Ranson is now and what it is going to be in the future.”

Like in a Disney animated feature, the power went not to a new benevolent mayor, but to City Manager Andy Blake and his sidekick >Edward Erfurt IV, Assistant City Manager. Blake was a City Attorney before he became City Manager and Edward was expert in Form Based Code, urban planning and how to manipulate zoning ordinances. Keith “Duke” Pierson, the former Vice Mayor who was appointed mayor of Ranson in February 2016 after Mayor David Hamill’s death, was elected to a full term on June 5, 2016 with a grand total of 126 votes cast in the race.

If Mayor Hamill had been alive when Rockwool made contact through the WVDO in the fall of 2016, one year after Ranson, Charles Town, the WVDO and all the other stakeholders had agreed to the NorthPort Station plan, he would have politely said, “no thank you, we don’t have a place for heavy industry in Ranson.”

Blake and Erfurt, on the other hand, were just the ones to exploit the smallest of procedural loopholes in an attempt to kill the mixed use transit-oriented development plan for Jefferson Orchard, which was required to make NorthPort Station feasible, replace it with heavy industry, and then cover their tracks. The following summary includes only a few of the many anomalous activities.

The SmartCode Zoning Ordinance had a height limit of 90 feet for structures, which was much less than the 210-foot smokestacks required by Rockwool.

Height limits, however, did not apply to attics or raised basements, masts, belfries, clock towers, chimney flues, water tanks, or elevator bulkheads.

The following is from the adopted 2012 SmartCode Zoning Ordinance, under Article 6:

“All storage, utility and infrastructure elements including service areas, loading space, transformers, telephone boxes, garbage cans, dumpsters, condensers, meters, backflow preventers, siamese connections and the like must be located within the second or third layer and concealed from view from any frontage or sidewalk by streetscreens, and opaque gates. Loading and service entries have to be accessed from alleys when available.”

Industrial uses requiring additional height in the SDI may be permitted by administrative waiver, as long as The City Manager or his designee makes the following written findings:

  1. The waiver is >consistent with the provisions of Section 1.2 Intent.
  2. The waiver is >consistent with the Comprehensive Plan.
  3. The waiver does not require a Special Exception Permit.
  4. The additional height will not materially endanger the public health or safety or constitute a public nuisance if located where proposed and developed according to the plans and information submitted and approved. 
  5. The additional height will not substantially injure the value of adjoining property; or that the use is a public necessity.
  6. The additional height, if developed according to the plans and information approved, will be in harmony with proximate land uses, and consistent with the purposes of the district.

Rockwool did not meet the Ranson SmartCode Zoning Ordinance, since the required stacks would substantially harm the health and welfare of the neighbors in the community and negatively impacted property values.

So, instead of attempting an administrative waiver, the City Council amended their Ordinance in August of 2017, following a Planning Commission public hearing in July of 2017, by simply adding one word to the list of exemptions from height limits: “stacks.” Then the City removed all the other restrictions within the SDI listed above. The changes can be seen >in the Full Agenda Packet of the July 10, 2017 Ranson Planning Commission Meeting. The explanation was provided by an unidentified voice (most likely Andy Blake) in this clip from the meeting:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8J_ipQaxcg&feature=youtu.be

“I think frankly by the time this project’s over...I don’t think this room is going to be empty. I think you are gonna have people who are against the natural gas line coming in, and you’re gonna have people that are very concerned about the environmental air permit. The more opening there is to discretion, I think the more opportunity there is for a challenge. I would like, if we’re going to do this, what’s the difference between ninety and a hundred when it comes down to it, in a district that is only to itself. If we increase that by right, there is no discretion anymore. The second the client comes in with the building permit, you check the box and you go on with life. Otherwise, they’re going to frankly be looking at me saying, ‘discretion,’ and I’m going to have the public here saying ‘well, what gives you the right. What gives you the right. Why should you be the one who decides. Frankly, I’m willing to take that position. Why? We’re here with the customizable SDI thing. You need 120, then build 120. It shows a good faith compromise, frankly, if we go to them and say, ‘we don’t like your fence, it sucks. So we compromised here so you don’t need to go through a discretionary waiver process but work with on another topic.”

Essentially, Blake is admitting that with the zoning amendments presented that night (and adopted by the City Council in August), the SDI designation (“customizable SDI thing”) gives him the full authority to do anything he pleases, including scrapping the entire transit-oriented development in favor of Rockwool. I’m fairly certain that the words “Special District Industrial” in the geospatial datasets attracted Deloitte and the WVDO in the first place, and Blake exploited this classification in a way that would be evident to those practiced in the art, but opaque to the general public.

Another clue to the plans between the WVDO, Ranson and the JCDA to locate heavy, gas-consuming industry to the site and deprive the county of the Master Planned Transit Oriented Development (homes, stores, jobs, parks and civic buildings) is the listings for the property on the JCDA site and the WV Commerce Department website. The Jefferson Orchards property was up for sale in November 2015 and should have been marketed to developers of mixed-use projects that would fit with the intent of the NorthPort Station plan. Instead, >the West Virginia Commerce Department listing states that the zoning is “Industrial” and that the “zoning application is pending.” The >JCDA listing states that 95 acres are “Industrial” and “295 Acres are mixed-use” but that they “will rezone for larger users.”

The industrial component was not for heavy industrial manufacturing but light industrial that would complement a neighborhood (remember the maker spaces?). Ranson already has an industrial classification for heavy industry. The SDI was clearly for industrial within a community (keeping with the intent of SmartCode, complete neighborhoods).

It is also unclear who authorized the JCDA to state that the Mixed Use could be rezoned for larger users. “Other users” can only mean more industrial. If the JCDA is to have nothing to do with Ranson zoning, this is very suspect.

The ad also states that the water and sewer can be extended to the site to accommodate future industrial development. Who authorized the JCDA to promote these amenities for industrial use on a Transit Oriented Development? Were they purposefully deterring Mixed Use developers? Mixed Use was tied to the MARC Train Project and already had promises from the State of West Virginia for support if it was integrated with the transit-oriented development in order to apply for funding through the >Federal Transit Authority for Transit Oriented Development.  

A key claim in JCDA lawyer Rohrbaugh’s September 13, 2018 letter is “once it was determined that the Jefferson Orchards property met all of the criteria for the proposed manufacturing facility, the State Development Office was able to reach an agreement with the business prospect,” Rockwool, “to bring the manufacturing facility to Jefferson County.”

The problems with this claim are manifold. Ranson voted to approve the PILOT on July 18, 2017, which means it determined that the site met all the conditions before that date. The July 18, 2017 Ranson City Council packet contains the first review of the zoning text amendments from July 10, 2017, that the Ranson Planning Commission recommended for approval.

The July 18, 2017 packet also has the MOU between Rockwool and Ranson with a deadline for rezoning and $1.5 million in payments for the following:

  • $750,000 at the time of the site plan submission (which means the funds are for the approved rezoning because a site plan cannot be submitted if it does not meet the zoning requirements.)
  • $750,000 at the time of building permit submission (which means the funds are for approving the site plan and any other administrative waivers because a building permit cannot be submitted without an approved site plan).

The 120-day deadline, referenced in the July 10, 2017, Ranson Planning Commission meeting as a three-month expedited process, was met. Officially, the zoning ordinance change was approved in August, in September the City Council approved the rezoning which added 100 more acres of SDI (not heavy industrial) and on October 18, 2017, the site plan was approved by the Planning Commission.  

The July 18, 2017 packet also contained a resolution authorizing the Ranson Mayor or a designee to negotiate and execute a mainline sewer extension and financing agreement.

I am not a zoning expert or a planning professional, and my experience consists only of my time in the WVDO and in performing geospatial analysis for an engineering firm, supporting both municipalities and developers in siting major projects. But this timeline and process would suggest that concerned citizens might take a closer look at the >Ranson Zoning Ordinance Regulations, Section 19-19, Amendments on “contract” and “spot” zoning.

  • Contract zoning. Zoning classifications shall not be based on assurances by an applicant, or conditions imposed by the city council that rezoned property will be developed in a particular, limited fashion.

  • Spot zoning. Zoning classifications shall not be adopted in a manner which confers special benefit or places special consideration upon a particular parcel of land, nor adopted in a manner which classifies a relatively small area differently from surrounding property of similar nature and logical use, without sound basis in the purposes of zoning as set forth in this chapter and state law.

If it is found that Ranson relied on either of these practices, the entire Rockwool project could be in jeopardy as “fruit from a poisoned tree.” The careers of individuals within Ranson city government could also be at risk.

Dignitaries, from left: Bruce S. Gordon, NAACP President & CEO, Baltimore; Harold Stewart, NAACP past Grand Master - Prince Hall Masons, Charles Town, W.Va.; James Tolbert, president, West Virginia State Conference NAACP, Charles Town, W.Va.; and George Rutherford, president, Jefferson County NAACP, Ranson, WV. stand around the Great Tablet honoring abolitionist John Brown during a reenactment ceremony Friday, July 14, 2006, at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. The NAACP, Harpers Ferry, Shepherdstown and other municipalities and organizations have come out strongly against the Rockwool factory. (AP Photo/ The Journal Newspaper, Ron Agniir)

The next opportunity to halt Rockwool is a JCDA Board meeting scheduled for September 18th, 2018 at 3pm.

To avoid their project being derailed, Rockwool and the JCDA are focusing on keeping JCDA board members in line through threats of lawsuits against the Jefferson County, the JCDA, Charles Town, Ranson and even individual JCDA Board members who do not rubber stamp the water and sewer provisions in the PILOT.

The Rockwool attorney James A. Walls of Spilman Thomas (full disclosure: my real estate firm ThreeSquare LLC has retained Jim Walls in an unrelated matter, discussed below) threatens to take legal action against Jefferson County, seeking $100 million in damages for breaching the contract if the incentives aren’t provided according to the October 3, 2017 PILOT agreement.

According to a Facebook post by Billie P. Garde, an attorney who represents employees in whistleblower retaliation and discrimination before federal and state agencies, “There is no contract upon which to sue. Their letter is based on a legal theory of detrimental reliance -- but every one of the documents that they refer to is replete with caveats that Rockwool acknowledged had not yet happened and over which it could not exercise control.  That’s why the various MOUs have exit clauses for Rockwool if certain conditions do not occur that lets them out of the deal.”  

In her post, Billie continued, “Rockwool apparently relied to its detriment on thinking that the votes it needed were not really ‘votes’ at all – but rubber stamps.  Contracting away your right to vote your conscience is against public policy. Their letter threatens a strategic lawsuit against public participation, a “SLAPP” suit, designed to scare people.  And, sadly, it appears that some of those people currently in positions of authority are now scared, and believe that they must vote in accordance with a deal that they no longer believe in.”

One event that could have potentially altered the thinking of public officials would have been the publication of Rockwool’s Air Quality Permit Notice of Application prior to - rather than six weeks after - their consideration and approval of the PILOT agreement. By November 22, 2017 - the day before Thanksgiving - it was too late.   

Peter Onoszko, A Jefferson County Commissioner, was asleep at the switch when Rockwool published its Air Quality Notice in a small local paper the day before Thanksgiving.Facebook

It is remarkable that the JCDA attorney would publicly give merit to a potentially adverse party’s claim to $100 million in damages, and also offer the opinion that JCDA board members owe a “fiduciary duty to the entity they govern,” that they the liability insurance carrier would likely not cover a breach of contract and that there is “is significant risk that individual board members could incur personal liability for the damages which could be alleged in the event that the JCDA refuses to proceed with the Water Project.”

The West Virginia Code states that county public officials are exempt from personal liability on any contract or obligation. Knowing a couple of the JCDA directors, I’m confident that they would not join a board that did not have a Directors and Officers insurance policy that covered them personally for any gaps in the law.

Most importantly, if you’re on the JCDA, you are sworn to uphold the Constitution of the State of West Virginia and the Constitution of the United States of America - not the wishes of the JCDA directorate. You specifically do not have a fiduciary duty to the organization, because you are a fiduciary of the public.

Fear is a very powerful motivator, but information is more powerful still.

Tomorrow, when the JCDA considers the Water Bond required by Rockwool to cost-effectively develop their project, ten of the twenty JCDA board members need to vote “nay” in order to slow, and perhaps halt, the Rockwool development.

The One Lie: Economic development is out of your hands.

One of the individuals on the JCDA board who will be voting on the Water Bond is Dan Casto, a lawyer who currently practices at the firm of Atwill, Troxell & Leigh, P.C. in Leesburg, VA. I was introduced to Dan by a mutual friend in the summer of 2017 as a local attorney, then with another firm, who was interested in helping entrepreneurs and small businesses in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Dan stopped by my office in Martinsburg, WV, in the same building financed partially through a WVEDA loan that housed my video game technology company and the 2004 campaigns for the Democratic Party.

At the time, I was the CEO of Geostellar, a solar energy platform that was in the process of raising $40 million under an exemption from SEC Registration commonly known as “Reg A+.” Our securities lawyers charged about $1,000/hr, so it was worth a shot to audition Dan with some corporate governance work and a smaller offering under the SEC’s “Regulation Crowdfunding” rules.

Geostellar had some equity investors in Dallas, TX who were also secured creditors. They were making life difficult for us by leveraging both their board seat and their loan covenants to control the company.

The room currently occupied by the Berkeley County Democrats previously housed Geostellar, a solar energy platformRon Blunt

At the same time, a technology known as blockchain was gaining in popularity. In particular, developers were using the technology to create digital “crypto” assets that store, aggregate, transfer and distribute value. Initially, Dan & I collaborated on a model to finance the development of solar energy generation capacity through the sale of crypto assets in order to break the logjam with our investor and save Geostellar from within. When the investor blocked our attempts to issue solar-backed crypto assets, we created a new company called Indeco and continued to pursue the idea.

Before long, it became evident that SEC-compliant crypto assets, also known as security tokens, could be used by entrepreneurs to raise capital for a wide range of projects, bypassing the capital markets. When it was clear that we were not going to be able to save Geostellar from the machinations of the investors, we expanded the mission of Indeco and began developing a platform to align the interests of security token issuers and investors. Dan served for a short period as Indeco’s General Counsel and CFO before leaving for a Leesburg, VA law firm.

In another twist of fate, or evidence of the intimacy of relationships in West Virginia, my real estate company that owns the Martinsburg property hired Jim Walls of Spilman Thomas, who also serves as Rockwool’s attorney, to litigate a case in the Berkeley County court system against the investors from Dallas.

Security tokens promise to radically alter the global economy by essentially eliminating the distorting effects of bankers, brokers, funds and other aggregators and distributors of capital in the capital markets. Access to capital for an individual or small business is governed by the demand of the capital markets for equity and debt securities. With security tokens, any business large or small can “crowdfund” projects on the blockchain by offering a share of the revenue or profits to purchasers of the crypto assets.

As things currently stand, the capital markets have a great deal of control over our lives. Consider the Rockwool project. Capital Research and Management Company, a subsidiary of Capital Group, is both a major shareholder in Rockwool, and a donor to Senator Manchin’s campaign. Many of the citizens in Jefferson County could inadvertently be investors in Rockwool through Mutual Funds and ETFs in their IRAs and 401Ks.

The “investment” in West Virginia from China Energy is not an investment at all. Both Rockwool and China Energy are exploiting the resources and labor of the Mountain State to extract as much value as possible at the lowest possible cost in order to transfer the aggregated capital through Wall Street to shareholders overseas.

What if citizens could put their funds directly into the businesses they wanted to attract to their area, or invest in local businesses that they wanted to see grow and succeed? With new forms of crowdinvesting, individuals can invest in both businesses and municipal infrastructure, and benefit from participation in the long-term income streams they generate.

Part of the acute frustration and anger in Jefferson County is due to the abandonment by Ranson of the previous plan for the 400 acres that constitutes Jefferson Orchards. You can hear that frustration in the voice of Melissa Hynes, a professional planning and zoning administrator who lives in Charles Town and works in Virginia, as she confronts the Charles Town City Counsel on their abdication of responsibility.

First, Melissa paints a clear picture of how valuable 398 acres can be in a mixed use environment, with each of the following sites including parking, landscaping, open space and common areas.

  • Hood College on 50 acres with 2,250 students and 100 jobs.
  • Clarksburg Outlets on 50 acres with 100 stores and about 500 jobs.
  • Catoctin Zoo on 25 acres with 60,000 visitors per year and about 30 jobs.
  • MGM National Harbor on 23 acres with 3,600 jobs.
  • Merriweather Post Pavilion on 40 acres with 350,000 visitors per year and about 100 jobs.
  • Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research on 70 acres with 2,200 jobs.
  • Wells Fargo Home Mortgage Regional Headquarters on 39 acres with 1,541 jobs.

The total acreage of these projects, which could all co-exist in a mixed-use development, is 297 acres with a total 8,071 jobs and an endless stream of visitors. On the remaining 100 acres, with six dwellings per acre, 1,500 full-time residents could live in 600 homes. A popular option, offering dwelling units on the second floor of retail stores, would add additional housing.

Particularly powerful in this video is Melissa’s response to a town council member who states “this plant is being built in the City of Ranson, not in the City of Charles Town… I’m not going to be argued with if this is not our problem.”

As you’ll hear in the clip, Hynes is having none of it. She cites the number of times Ranson is mentioned in the Charles Town comprehensive plan, and the merger of the Ranson and Charles Town planning departments. The City of Charles Town is a party to the NorthPort Station, and the council member acts as if Ranson can simply change the zoning and destroy the project without any recourse. The abdication of responsibility is appalling. And it’s exactly what Thrasher and Blake counted on for the success of their operation.

The source of her rage isn’t just the damage that will be done to the community if Rockwool is built; it is the vision that is being abandoned. The City of Ranson website presented the NorthPort Station as follows:

Working with multiple private, state and local partners and landowners (the Northport Task Force), the Hagerstown/Eastern MPO and its consultants developed and presented this study to the City of Ranson.  Northport Station is the proposed centerpiece of a future smart growth transit-oriented development that will also replace the obsolete Duffields Stop on the MARC commuter rail system. This study performed site selection analysis on the Jefferson Orchards property, performed preliminary environmental screening, determined station design layouts and costs, ridership and traffic impacts and provided an implementation plan.

The HuffingtonPost called the work of Charles Town and Ranson “the gold standard for a concerted, multi-faceted, small-town land use planning effort.” The mixed use development that included homes, offices, shops, restaurants and a commuter rail station was expected to attract and create over 3,500 jobs while improving the quality of the life in the entire region.

The Potomac River flows through Harper's Ferry National Park in West Virginia. | Location: Harper's Ferry National Park, West Virginia, USA.

When the City of Ranson approved the land development plan to accommodate Rockwool on 130 acres of the 400 acres in Jefferson Orchards rezoned for industrial use, it kept up the pretense that that the balance of the property was going to be a Transit Oriented District, a type of urban development that maximizes the amount of residential, business and leisure space within walking distance of public transport.

In reality, Rockwool, through a recorded Land Use Restriction Agreement (October 2017) with the owners of Jefferson Orchard, Rockwool prohibited homes, churches, nursing homes, inpatient rehab centers and other uses on 212 acres of Jefferson Orchards. Keep in mind that Ranson rezoned Jefferson Orchards to have any additional 100 acres of Special District Industrial (total SDI 190 acres), so this 212 acre restriction consumes the rest of “non-SDI”Jefferson Orchards. The agreement also places further restrictions not permitting office, retail or restaurants within 1,000 feet of the eastern boundary of Rockwool. And if that was not enough - Rockwool also recorded a “right to first refusal across the remaining land” just in case the restrictions don’t keep the “unwanted” uses out.

Rockwool is a 24/7/365 operation with three shifts, 2 smokestacks and at least 80 trucks a day hauling the leftovers of coal and steel and who knows what else. For the sake of argument, let’s say some employers can pass the Land Use Restrictions test and the Right to First Refusal test - who wants to be neighbors with heavy industrial….other than more heavy industrial. Ranson would get another heavy industrial factory with the average of 1 job per acre, instead of the 11.5 jobs or more per acre in the mixed-use model. This is clearly to the benefit of China Energy and Mountaineer Gas, not the citizens of Jefferson County.

In addition to the 3,500 jobs being traded for 150 Jefferson County will lose millions of dollars in impact fees for transportation projects (such as train stations). Industrial users pay only $1,000 per 1,000 square feet of building, which adds up to $430,000, compared to $3,200 per single family home. The study states that the planned yield for the development is 872,000 square feet of commercial, office and retail development, 517 single family houses, 290 townhomes and 248 multi-family units, 517 single family houses, 290 townhomes, and 248 multi-family units for a total impact fee of $5.2 million.

Another loss for Jefferson County is federal funds, which are necessary for this type of smart development. As the Huffington Post states, “In this case, the communities benefited greatly from federal funding that has since become harder to tap into because of budget-slashing… The communities sought and leveraged several sources of federal funding into an innovative and quite comprehensive planning exercise. Drawing upon support from the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development, and from the Environmental Protection Agency - collectively, the federal Partnership for Sustainable Communities.”

Now, rather than be in partnership with the State of WV and the Federal Government on a program to improve the quality of life and economy of Jefferson County, Melissa and other local and state taxpayers are subsidizing two global corporations, Rockwool and China Energy.

In the 2018 senate primaries, Senator Manchin’s arch-enemy, Don Blankenship, a coal baron who served a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards, lost the Republican nomination. He was widely mocked for this absurd ad that invokes “jobs for China people” from the “China family” of “Cocaine Mitch.”

While the xenophobia is repugnant, the only way the economics work on the trade of 3,500 jobs for 150 jobs is if your primary consideration is the massive amounts of natural gas that will be consumed to provide China Energy a return on their investment, and secondarily consider the benefits to Rockwool’s investors. Nowhere in the equation are the citizens of Jefferson County.

The JCDA board members made a solemn oath upon taking office to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of West Virginia, and to faithfully discharge and perform the duties of a member of the Jefferson County Development Authority to the best of their skill and judgement, and according to the law.

According to Article 14 of the US Constitution, a state may not “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

As a constituent, I intend to appear at the JCDA board meeting on September 18th in order to make the case, within the two minutes of alloted time, that the constitutional rights of Jefferson County citizens to due process were denied through the actions of State of West Virginia, through the Department of Commerce, West Virginia Development Office and the City of Ranson when they unilaterally terminated the mixed-use, transit-oriented development sponsored in partnership with my elected representatives and replace it with a factory that deprives us of life, liberty and property.

To bring the story full circle, on September 27, Senator Manchin will be in Martinsburg for a “Rally in the Panhandle” event organized by the Berkeley County Democratic Party, which operates out of my building in Martinsburg. For many of us in the Eastern Panhandle, this has become an election hinging on a few very significant issue, the first and foremost of which is Rockwool.

Rockwool is a bi-partisan topic. Chris Kinnan, a leader of Jefferson County Vision, makes the conservative case against Rockwool in a video from>This Week in Morgan County, hosted by Russell Mokhiber.

I plan to contact Senator Manchin and make it known that unless he uses the platform of the Rally to wholeheartedly commit to working with his constituents in Jefferson County, Governor Justice and all involved parties to end the nightmare of Rockwool and bring back the NorthPort mixed-use transit-oriented plan, the Democratic Party will be evicted from my building the morning after the Rally.

After working with Senator Manchin in Charleston, I know him to be an exceptionally responsive and committed public servant. He has a genuinely big heart and wants what is best for his constituents.

I do not know if this will move him to act, but he should know that the voters of Jefferson County can decide whether he has a job come next year.

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 21, 2018

After the publication of this article, a representative of Rockwool contacted Forbes to say that Rockwool is a green company making environmentally-sustainable insulation. Rockwool will be a sponsor of ClimateWeek in New York City next week.

The group of citizens known on Facebook as Concerned Citizens Against Rockwool-Ranson and on Twitter as @StopRockwool plan to demonstrate against the company at ClimateWeek, and are mobilizing an online campaign to argue that the reason Rockwool insulation may be less toxic than the competition is due to the heavy emissions released into the environment during the manufacturing process.

The author was contacted by Senator Manchin, who is organizing a meeting of citizens, local and county public officials and Rockwool. My description of that call is posted on my company blog.

Source : https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidlevine/2018/09/17/toxic-rockwool-three-truths-and-a-lie-about-the-economic-development-game/

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