CHARLES TOWN – Rockwool filed a federal lawsuit today to block the Jefferson County school board from its plan to seize the company’s factory site in Ranson to build a regional student support center.
Earlier this week, the school board wrote Rockwool officials a letter proposing to take over the land where a controversial 460,000-square-foot factory has been under construction since last June and build a center to provide special educational services, science and technology outreach, virtual coursework and more.
In order to take over the site, the school board would undertake a public condemnation proceeding and would offer to pay Rockwool “a fair market value” of $1.4 million for nearly 195 acres of the site on the outskirts of Ranson.
The Denmark-based company said it has already spent more than $47 million toward the $150 million factory first announced in mid-2017. Rockwool plans to open its factory in the summer of 2021.
Soon after the June 26, 2018, groundbreaking ceremony, some county residents began criticizing the site, including parents and others who petitioned the school board to find a way to stop Rockwool’s factory on Charles Town Road near North Jefferson Elementary School.
“Condemnation is an awesome and intrusive power, and left unchecked, the potential for abuse – especially in land use disputes like this – is boundless,” Rockwool’s lawsuit states.
Factory opponents say the amount of pollution the factory is permitted to emit pose too great a risk to North Jefferson and other school sites. Others point to the truck traffic the facility would generate while other critics say Jefferson County should not become “industrialized.”
In its 16-page lawsuit, Rockwool says the school board could locate the proposed student support center on 150 undeveloped acres the school system already owns along Currie Road in Ranson.
The company’s court filing also said the school board had the opportunity to purchase undeveloped land next to the factory in the former Jefferson Orchards site.
Referring to a tax break agreement from local officials, Rockwool points out that the school board was among a “wide array of state and local officials” who “recruited” Rockwool “with contractual promises and negotiations” to build the factory.
The school board signed onto the Payments in Lieu of Taxes agreement in September of 2017, joining the Jefferson County Commission, the city of Ranson, Sheriff Pete Dougherty and Assessor Angie Banks in approving the document.
The PILOT agreement was arranged by the Jefferson County Development Authority and the West Virginia Department of Commerce.
The school board made no mention of its plans to build a regional student support center when it joined the PILOT, Rockwool’s lawsuit maintains.
“Recently, the BOE had a change of heart,” states Rockwool’s court filing with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia in Martinsburg. “Bowing to public pressure created and fueled by half-truths and speculation, the BOE now opposes the facility. For instance, it has very publicly demanded a moratorium on construction, and it has repeatedly threatened to terminate the PILOT.”
The lawsuit adds, “The BOE’s motive is transparent; by threatening to condemn Rockwool’s property, the BOE intends to prohibit Rockwool’s lawsuit activities over which the BOE has zero regulatory authority.”
School board officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
In its letter to Rockwool, the school board said the new center needs the site “to accommodate the extensive facilities that are envisioned for meeting the special needs of our changing student population.” The school board also said taking the factory site is necessary because it is close to other schools and school facilities and with easy access to W.Va. 9.
The school board’s letter was sent from Courtney Harden, an attorney representing the school board who works for the law firm Briglia Hundley in Tysons Corner, Va.
“This is a full take of the property, there is no remainder and thus no damages,” the letter states in suggesting paying Rockwool $1.4 million for the land.
Citizens also have filed four lawsuits in hopes of blocking the factory, including a case questioning whether PILOT agreements violate the West Virginia Constitution requiring equal taxation.
In its filing, Rockwool points out it had been relying on earlier promises made by the school board and other public officials in deciding to building its factory in Jefferson County.
“If BOE is not enjoined from the threatened condemnation of its property, Rockwool will be immediately and irreparably harmed through construction delays and negative impacts on bond financing for sewer utility improvements,” Rockwool wrote in its lawsuit.
Rockwool also is asking the federal court to make the school board pay its legal costs in filing the lawsuit.
The company’s suit was filed by James Walls, an attorney with Spilman Thomas & Battle in Morgantown.