CHARLES TOWN – Jefferson Utilities is calling a county Board of Education lawsuit attempting to revoke a 2018 land easement given to the private water utility “a malicious prosecution of a civil action with no basis in law.”
Jefferson Utilities said the school board’s opposition to the Rockwool factory in Ranson is the primary motivation for the board’s lawsuit.
“Unfortunately, so caught up is the Jefferson County Board of Education in the hysteria about the construction and opening of the nearby [Rockwool] plant,” according to the company’s 18-page response to the lawsuit, “… that the Jefferson County Board of Education has filed this action as Plaintiff against its own interests and against the interests of the people whose it is the Plaintiff’s duty to serve.”
In its defense, Jefferson Utilities accuses the Board of Education of pursuing the lawsuit over the easement “solely for inappropriate political purposes.” The company cites the school board’s failed 2019 lawsuit to seize through eminent domain 295 acres that Rockwool purchased for the factory as evidence of the school system’s animus against the factory.
While granting an injunction to temporarily halt the school board’s eminent domain proceedings, a federal judge characterized the board’s action as a legal fabrication designed merely to stop a legal but politically controversial commercial development. After the injunction was handed down, the school board withdrew its eminent domain proceedings in a settlement with Rockwool, in which the details were never made public.
“The [school board] has an established history of misusing its substantial public resources inappropriately for the purpose of obstructing the lawful efforts of Rockwool,” the company states.
A water line extension that relied on the easement that the school system conveyed to Jefferson Utilities was constructed primarily to serve the Rockwool factory. However, the same 2.5-mile extension of Jefferson Utilities’ primary water system also serves North Jefferson Elementary School and 256 homes in the adjacent Fox Glen development.
The easement runs through North Jefferson Elementary’s property.
The $5.5 million water line extension — built by a Jefferson Utilities subsidiary and paid for with state economic development money — is poised to serve future development in the Kearneysville area.
Jefferson Utilities states that the water line and water treatment system, which now serves North Jefferson and Fox Glen, provides “improved, reliable, dependable, potable water, superior in reliability, quality and purity to that which they had before … .”
Before the water line extension was constructed, the school and the neighborhood relied on inferior wells and water treatment systems, according to Jefferson Utilities’ defense filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court. “The water supply system for Fox Glen was on the verge of total collapse,” the company states.
Those wells since have been disconnected from the school’s and neighborhood’s drinking water systems.
In March, the school board filed its lawsuit to rescind the easement and take back ownership of a water well transferred to Jefferson Utilities in 2017 and 2018. The school board maintains that two transactions that transferred easement and water well to Jefferson Utilities violated West Virginia law, making both transactions now invalid.
To support its claim that the transactions were invalid, the school board cites West Virginia law governing the sale of public school land or buildings in rural areas. That section reads, in part, that “if at any time a county board determines that any building or any land is no longer needed for school purposes, the county board may sell, dismantle, remove or relocate the building and sell the land on which it is located at public auction, after proper notice and on such terms as it orders, to the highest responsible bidder.”
However, Jefferson Utilities states that the transactions were legally conducted and that the school board “has no right to undo the actions that it has taken.”
While citing 17 legal defenses, many of them involving technical legal points and arguments, Jefferson Utilities highlights a legal principle of “equitable doctrines of estoppel” and the “unclean hands of the Plaintiff” to argue that too much time has passed — and that too many actions have been taken relying on the legality of those transactions — to nullify those transactions.
North Jefferson’s water well never was a factor in constructing the water line, the company states. And the company adds that a sinkhole that caused standing water to form along the easement at North Jefferson has no relevance to the dispute over the easement, as the school board claims.
Jefferson Utilities has asked that the school board’s lawsuit be dismissed. The company is also seeking to require the school system to pay its legal costs to defend itself.
Pointedly, Jefferson Utilities added that it “reserves the right” to individually counter-sue the school board members for filing the lawsuit amounting to a “malicious prosecution” and an “abuse of [the legal] process.”
Charles S. Trump, a Berkeley Springs attorney and Republican state senator who serves as state Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, is representing Jefferson Utilities’ legal defense.