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At the WV Legislature: House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism debates eminent domain, approves $30 million for business development

By Matt Young, WV Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House Committee on Economic Development and Tourism, on Tuesday, advanced five bills, including SB 160 – which resulted in over an hour of debate regarding the merits of eminent domain for creating or enhancing rail trails. 

As explained by House counsel, SB 160, “Establishes the West Virginia Rail Trails program, consisting of a ‘rail to trail,’ and a ‘rail with trail’ program.”

Counsel further explained that the Senate’s recent committee substitute for the bill defines “rail to trail” as: “An inactive railroad right-of-way being utilized for public non-motorized recreational trail use.” The bill also defines “rail with trail” as: “A shared-use path or trail open and developed for non-motorized recreational use by the public that is located on, or adjacent to, the rights-of-way of an active railroad.”

According to counsel, the House committee’s amendment adding language to the bill which clarifies the Division of Natural Resources’ (DNR) legal ability to take possession of existing rights-of-way was introduced at the request of the DNR. The amendment was adopted without discussion. However, a second amendment seeking to remove language referring to the use of “eminent domain” by the DNR was rejected by the committee.

“We’re talking about using the power of eminent domain to create a rails to trail program,” Amendment author Del. Jonathan Pinson, R-Mason, told the committee. “I think that’s pretty excessive.”

Pinson argued that the use of eminent domain should be reserved for “vital infrastructure” only.

 “We’re maybe going in a very dangerous direction there,” Pinson noted, before adding, “so I would say strike that code section in its entirety.”

In response to Pinson argument, counsel advised that removal of the term “eminent domain” would significantly limit the DNR’s ability to acquire rights-of-way, saying, “If they (DNR) encounter a resistant railroad company or other property owner who had a rail right-of-way and didn’t want to engage in an agreement to consenually make that (property) transfer, then the power of eminent domain would not be available.”

Pinson’s proposed amendment was defeated by a vote of 11 to five. 

Also on the committee’s agenda was HB 3370, which seeks to establish a loan-securement program for private developers performing work on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as well as property owned by the state. The bill was primarily inspired as the result of difficulties experienced by private developers at the Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park in Lewis County while trying to obtain private bank funding.

According to counsel, the structural limitations created by the various property and asset ownership agreements of certain State Parks make it difficult for developers to secure bank loans, adding that, “This creates a mechanism to give private lenders the knowledge that their loan will be secured.” 

Additional bills advanced Tuesday by the committee were:

  • HB 3392: Which seeks to, “Dedicate the first $30 million of revenue each fiscal year into the Development Office Promotion and Closing fund. These funds will be used to facilitate business formation, expansion or improvement and retention through marketing and international development.”
  • HB 3428: Seeking “To remove the maximum number of industrial developmental sites that may be approved by Public Service Commission (PSC). It also eliminates the number of sites available per congressional district.”
  • HB 3094: The Remote Worker Home Development Act – Which “seeks to draw new workers and families to West Virginia for the purposes of remote working.” This will be accomplished by authorizing home developers to create subdivisions that are “remote worker ready” regarding utility and broadband installation.