Like many students, I didn't spend all my waking hours at West Virginia University hitting the books. Far from it, in fact. When springtime came around, I could be found pounding the rapids as a weekend white-water guide on the Cheat and New rivers.
I really loved the Cheat because it was a fairly technical river, one chock-full of boulder gardens that you'd need to deftly negotiate so you didn't turn your raft into a pinball, bouncing from rock to rock until you finally swamped or pinned.
The New, on the other hand, was, for the East, a big, rolling river, one that you largely ran straight ahead with minor corrections as you lined up for rapids like Sweet's Fall, Double-Z, Surprise, and Greyhound Bus. In the bottom of a deep gorge with --in the mid-1970s-- few signs of development, the New River Gorge gave rafters a small slice of wilderness, even if it wasn't officially wilderness.
Today that feel is steadily slipping away, and a big chunk of it could be lopped off if Fayette County's decision to allow a high-priced housing development to be perched atop the gorge stands.
Hopefully, an effort by a handful of conservation groups to overturn the county's decision will prevail, as having a 9-mile-long swath of 484 houses go up on the rim of the New River Gorge National River would definitely detract from the rugged and gorgeous setting.
"People travel here to enjoy the authentic and unique experiences offered by the natural and historic resources of the New River Gorge, not to see suburban developments," says Erin Haddix, the Mid-Atlantic field rep for the National Parks Conservation Association.
A technical analysis of the "Roaring River" development by the National Park Service shows that 76 of the 484 houses would be visible from various scenic overlooks along the gorge. While the county and the developer, Land Resources Corporation, maintain that "no houses will be visible from any ground-level vantage point in the park and that this development will not impair the scenic views of the New River Gorge," neither group has provided technical analysis to support that claim, according to NPCA.
Joining the NPCA in the lawsuit are the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Plateau Action Network, and the National Committee for the New River.
"Economic development and the conservation of the New River Gorge are compatible," says Gene Kistler of the Plateau Action Network. "However, we need sensitive development that does not harm an existing economic engine like the New River Gorge National River."
This matter sounds like a case of the county commissioners failing to stand by their existing regulations pertaining to development and looking the other way in the name of a buck. Never mind that the national river, along with the nearby Gauley and Bluestone rivers, generate more than $130 million in tourism dollars each year and support 3,550 jobs that generate more than $49 million in income.
For instance, the county's zoning office, in discounting the Park Service's technical analysis of the development's visual impacts, bases its decision on ambiguous information. The office referred to unspecific site visits, input from an unnamed firm, testimony from an unnamed optical expert, and a sightline test using balloons floated above 25 lots...none if which was among the 76 lots identified as falling within the scenic corridor identified by Park Service officials.
And while the county claims it lacks the ability to prevent lots from impairing scenic views, its own development code states that "reasonable requirements for the preservation of outstanding natural features (including exceptional views) may be specified."
Stay tuned, folks, as this battle could wage on for quite a while.