MARTINSBURG – A decision is expected this afternoon on the Jefferson County school system’s try to seize the 194-acre site where Rockwool is building a factory that many in the area oppose.
Federal Judge Gina Groh heard more than two hours of testimony Tuesday from Bondy Shay Gibson, superintendent of Jefferson County Schools. Kathy Skinner, school board president, also took the stand to answer questions about the school system’s just-announced plans for a regional student support center to be built on land Rockwool owns.
The hearing wrapped up around 5:45 p.m. and will resume at 1 this afternoon at the U.S. District Courthouse in Martinsburg.
At one point, James Walls, Rockwool’s Morgantown-based attorney, asked Gibson how the decision was made to use eminent domain to take control of the site.
Gibson testified she didn’t know who first proposed the school board begin proceedings to take over the factory site on the outskirts of Ranson.
Later when Skinner testified, she said the school board had talked about seizing the Rockwool site in executive session first on April 1 and then again before the April 8 vote. “It was my idea,” she said.
Skinner testified that the first time news of the center was made public was in an April 9 news release that did not mention the site for the center or Rockwool.
Walls asked if there was any statement “anywhere in the world” about the center before that and Skinner answered: “No, sir.”
Skinner also acknowledged under questioning that she did not want to see the stone wool manufacturer open its facility. “I personally don’t want Rockwool to build because it prevents the schools from doing what it needs to do,” she said.
She also defended the selection of Rockwool’s land for the new center. It’s centrally located in the county and near W.Va. 9, she said.
The property adjacent to the Rockwool site that is for sale wasn’t considered because the center would be close to the Rockwool factory.
Walls also had pressed Gibson to explain why the school system hadn’t sought to condemn other property also conveniently located near W.Va. 9.
Walls also had Gibson recount the process that the school system pursued in land purchases in recent years for a new, three-school campus in Ranson and for a new elementary school in Shepherdstown.
Gibson said the school system looked at several possible sites before buying those properties.
She testified that when she and other school officials met with state School Building Authority officials in Charleston in February, they talked about the center but did not mention where the new facility would be built or the possibility of using eminent domain to get the land.
She said the school system has no cost estimate for what the regional student center would cost to build.
Groh ruled early in Tuesday’s hearing not to dismiss Rockwool’s counter suit – filed in federal court April 12, the same day that the school system went to circuit court for the eminent domain procedure – and also ruled that federal court was the proper jurisdiction for the matter.
The only other person to testify was Peter Regenberg, Rockwool’s vice president of operations for North America, who works from the company’s factory in Mississippi. He said that because of pesticides used when the factory site was Jefferson Orchards, it’s approved for commercial use but not for residential use.
He also testified that Rockwool has cleaned up the site, removing arsenic and other pesticides from the soil.
Before settling on the Jefferson County site, Regenberg said the company considered 250 other locations in the Northeast. Ranson was among four finalists.
He said the company has invested nearly $50 million in the development of the site and has committed another another nearly $80 million to contractors working on the project. The factory has been under construction since late June.
The school board voted 4-0 on April 8 to pursue the property seizure under eminent domain law for the purpose of building a multi-purpose regional student support center. The next day school officials notified Rockwool officials in a certified letter that they intended to purchase the factory site “at a fair market value” for $1.4 million or take legal action to do so through an eminent domain.
A year after Rockwool announced plans for the factory in mid-2017, citizens began protesting its emissions and location close to North Jefferson Elementary and other schools.
School board members, who in late 2017 signed a Payment In Lieu of Taxes agreement to entice Rockwool to come to the county, later heard citizens complaints and urged Rockwool officials to stop their construction of the factory as school officials examined potential health risks.
They also sought a Rockwool-funded independent health risk assessment, an effort that stalled after school officials failed to find a company to conduct the assessment.
On Feb. 7, Gibson wrote Rockwool that the school system would pursue “any and all legal, ethical” actions to stop the PILOT.
School officials say the center would serve special ed students and house advanced science and technology instruction, adult continuing ed courses, programs for home-schoolers and more plus a swimming pool, a playground designed for disabled children.
The April 9 news release did not mention the center’s location or price tag, nor anything about the school board’s vote on the project.
The school system already owns 155 undeveloped acres of farmland in Ranson for a future high school, middle school and elementary school. There’s also undeveloped land next to the factory site on the former Jefferson Orchards property.
“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 attorney argued in the company’s federal filing to obtain a temporary restraining order and an injunction against the BOE.
“Regardless of where the public stands on Rockwool specifically,” the company’s court filing states, “every member of the public has an interest in a [temporary restraining order] or injunction that prohibits the government from weaponizing its condemnation authority against disfavored members of society.”
School board members have been mostly silent regarding the regional center plan. Last week, school board member Mark Osbourn said he abstained from the April 8 vote because he doubts the school system has the money for the project.
Rockwool started work on the 460,000-square-foot factory site on the northern outskirts of Ranson after a June 26 groundbreaking, with an aim to begin operations by mid-2020.