Bill won’t privatize Cacapon, other state parks

Local reps talk about limits, realities of HB 4408

by Kate Shunney

Some employees and fans of Cacapon State Park spent last week trying to figure out whether a new West Virginia law could change their jobs or drastically alter the park they love.

Social media posts stirred up fears that park land and facilities owned by West Virginia could be taken over by private business, or turned into for-profit theme parks.

Morgan County’s legislators and the governor’s office say that just isn’t the case.

HB 4408 passed the West Virginia Legislature by a vote of 68 to 29 on Saturday, March 12 at 11:32 p.m. – less than half an hour before the regular session of the 85th Legislature came to a close.

The bill, which relates to contracts for construction of recreational facilities in state parks and forests, was changing all the way up to the final vote on Saturday night.

The West Virginia Senate added their own amendments to the bill and passed it on a third reading at 6 p.m. on March 12, then sent it back to the House chamber for final ratification.

State Senator Charles Trump (R-Morgan) voted for the amended version of the bill in his chamber, after seeing amendments that spelled out important limits to what private activity could happen at Cacapon and other state parks.

Back in the House chamber, Delegates Miller (R-Morgan) and Reed (R-Morgan) voted against the final version of the bill.

Miller was one of the sponsors of the original bill, which was an “agency bill,” meaning it was written and proposed by a state agency.

HB 4408 was offered up by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) which oversees the state park system, and by the Division of Tourism.

Miller said he originally backed the bill, but later got feedback that local residents had concerns about what it would mean for state parks and Cacapon State Park in particular.

The six-page bill allows the DNR to enter into contracts with third parties to add recreational features in state parks, or build new lodging under state park supervision. Any new facility built with private money will become property of the state after a period of years.

Provisions of the bills say the DNR must give written notice to the Legislature of the location of the contract.

State lawmakers tarried over a provision requiring that a public hearing must be held “within the county in which the facility is located” and that notice of that hearing must be published in a newspaper at least 20 days prior to that hearing. That rule remained in the final version of the bill.

HB 4408 authorizes the DNR to “enter into contracts with third parties to construct recreational facilities and cabins” in state parks. The bill says the state can arrange with third parties for the “construction, but not the operation, of cabins at any state park or forest.” Once built, “full title to the cabins shall immediately vest in the state and the cabins shall be operated by the parks and recreation section,” the bill says.

The law specifically authorizes cabin construction “of at least five cabins by any single third party in state parks and state forests which do not offer the facilities,” which could add cabin lodging to day-use parks or those with camping only.

Other parts of the bill deal with Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park resort, which was built in partnership between the state and a private developer in 2002.

What about Cacapon?

Supporters and employees of Cacapon State Park have broadcast their fears that HB 4408 could mean privatization of the 6,000-acre state park and loss of state jobs or retirements benefits for those who work at the park.

Cacapon is already one of several state parks that allows private vendors to run recreational services or hospitality operations inside a state property. The park’s current horseback riding service is privately owned and operated under contract with the state. Last year, the state also allowed Tentrr, a private camping company, to build and operate multiple “glamping” campsites along the Overlook Trail on top of Cacapon Mountain.

Back in the 1980’s, Coolfont Resort also ran Cacapon State Park’s food service operation at the lodge in lieu of park staff. The restaurants are currently run by employees.

Senator Trump said the final version of HB 4408 make it clear that the state can’t farm out operations of their current lodges and restaurants.

He said he was pleased to see the Senate amendments made that clear, “addressing, more narrowly, just contracts for the construction and operation of ‘new recreational, lodging and ancillary facilities’ within a state park, and that even with private dollars constructing new facilities with a state park, the park would continue to be run and operated, as before, by the State.”

“The changes made in the Senate were a vast improvement over all of the previous versions of the bill(s) I had seen,” said Trump.

Trump said the first thing to understand about the bill is that “it does not require that anything happen at Cacapon State Park at all. The bill does not mandate that any changes occur to anything at Cacapon State Park, but it does provide a framework for the consideration of future enhancements for the park that might be funded with private dollars.”

RV camping has been kicked around for Cacapon for more than two years, with a site already picked out behind the Nature Center. A private company could build and operate such a campground under HB 4408.

Delegate George Miller said his final vote on the bill came after he talked to some local people who worried that the new powers of the state would change the character of Cacapon State Park.

Miller said people who come here from Pittsburgh and Washington are “expecting a quiet getaway” and he thinks new private recreation services could threaten that.

“It would change the whole dynamics of that,” said Miller. He said Morgan County is a friendly and laid-back place for people to visit.

“The parks should be the same way – laid back – just a place to relax,” Miller said.

He said there were also fears that adding private recreation features to the parks would drive up costs for state residents to enjoy their parks, even though nothing in the bill changes free access to state parks.

Daryl Cowles, Eastern Panhandle representative for Gov. Jim Justice, told the Morgan County Commissioners last Wednesday that some of what he’s seen posted about the bill just isn’t accurate.

Cowles confirmed that the bill came from state agencies, not a private developer or lobbyist, and simply built on existing authority for the DNR to add amenities to state parks to serve guests.

“The bill does not allow for privatization of state parks,” Cowles said.

He told county officials that casinos and amusement parks are forbidden from being built in state parks, and anything structures must be in line with the state’s guidelines for building in the parks.

This year’s bill simply expanded to all parks the DNR’s existing powers to create private contracts for new amenities.

Cowles pointed out the DNR supported amendments that made the bill apply only to new facilities, not existing park features, and added approval oversight from the Secretaries of Commerce, Tourism and Economic Development.

The bill also says the DNR director cannot work for a vendor serving the state parks for a period of time after he or she leaves their post as the head of parks – a conflict of interest provision that Sen. Trump noted.

Delegate Ken Reed, who voted against the bill in its final version, said he didn’t have any warning about the law.

“I was not even aware of this bill until it hit the floor of the house and when I saw that Delegate Miller was a sponsor I just voted it out to the senate.  It wasn’t until after it passed over to the senate that some of the Morgan County Community started reaching out to me to oppose this bill,” he said in an email to The Morgan Messenger on Thursday.

After hearing opposition from some in Morgan County, Reed said he actively “tried to derail the bill” but it had already gained momentum by that point and passed in both houses with majority support.

Sen. Trump, who heads the Senate’s Judiciary committee and is recognized in Charleston as one of the key backers of Cacapon State Park’s recent improvements, said he welcomes a conversation about the parks bill.

“Some many disagree with the idea of inviting private investment to improve our parks, and that is a legitimate position. I am happy to have a conversation about that with anyone who wants to discuss it. However, any such conversation has to be grounded in the facts, not falsehoods,” he said.