Reservoir Details

Published 4:16 pm Thursday, November 15, 2012

CUMBERLAND – The rubber is finally hitting the road on the Cobbs Creek Reservoir project, which has been in the works for over ten years in Cumberland County. Many details of the reservoir project were clarified during a meeting for affected landowners held October 25 at the Cartersville Volunteer Rescue Squad. Representatives from Henrico County, Cumberland County, Colonial Pipeline and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries were present. Additional tables and chairs were set up just before the meeting commenced to facilitate the unexpected number of attendees.

Henrico County plans to start construction on the utility corridor of the Cobbs Creek Reservoir project this spring. Besides ongoing planning, Henrico has recently made offers to two Cumberland property owners, submitted two modified permit requests to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and begun final negotiations on required stream mitigations. However, as the project actually nears its start date not everyone is pleased with the specific details that have been revealed.

The major concerns raised were regarding the buffer zone, ramifications of easement language, details of the new permit modification and potential recreational development at the reservoir.

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The meeting was managed by William “Bill” Mawyer, assistant director of public utilities of Henrico County, who explained the newly submitted permit modification requests, the current timeline for the project and answered questions. He reiterated throughout that Henrico's intention toward property owners was to “treat you all fairly, just like we do in Henrico. We're treating you the same way. But we know that it takes a lot of discussion and that's why we wanted to come out tonight and talk to you guys. Make sure you understand what we're doing. We have no secrets. We answer your questions as best we can.”

However, many landowners present were not so sure of Henrico's intentions. Edmund “Pete” Burruss, who owns 20 of the parcels which Henrico plans to purchase, expressed frustration over early portrayals of the reservoir as a means of recreational and economic development in the area: “there was going to be a golf course. There was going to be hotels. There was going to be all this stuff. And now you're so blunt and so specific that you can only walk in the buffer. That's the first time it's been portrayed as being exactly what you said so bluntly.”

Buying Land

Mawyer provided an updated timeline on the reservoir project. Henrico plans to procure all the property necessary for the reservoir by April 2013, when it hopes to begin construction of the utility corridor.

Mawyer announced that while Henrico has already made offers to two property owners, it is currently not making additional offers until negotiations with the Department of Forestry regarding wetland mitigation are finalized.

When issues of eminent domain were raised by Robert Nolda, owner of the one house which will be underwater, Mawyer answered that “we don't intend to do any eminent domain. We intend to have friendly negotiations and acceptable agreement with all of you. But, it's going to be based on the fair market value of the appraiser.” He later added that the appraiser was aware of all the circumstances that were a part of the transaction.

In a later conversation with The Herald, Nolda expressed his frustration at being forced to sell his land, stating that the circumstances should allow him to receive at least replacement value for his property, which would exceed current “fair market” value.

Nolda also wondered whether the Virginia state constitutional amendment passed on November 6 could also affect compensation for his land if negotiations reach a stalemate and eminent domain is used. The amendment provides additional guidelines regarding just compensation. The constitution now includes these two sentences: “Just compensation shall be no less than the value of the property taken, lost profits and lost access, and damages to the residue caused by the taking. The terms 'lost profits' and 'lost access' are to be defined by the General Assembly.” This seems to add to current “fair market value,” considerations of “lost profits and lost access, and damages” as part of just compensation.

In the Memorandum of Understanding between Cumberland and Henrico, Cumberland County has agreed to “promptly exercise its power of eminent domain to obtain all property and easements Henrico deems necessary for the reservoir but is unable to purchase through good faith negotiations with owners.”

Nolda, who has not yet been made an offer, has already sought out council from an attorney who specializes in eminent domain and was also present at the meeting. Other property owners have also already sought legal council.

John Tracy, director of Henrico's Real Property Department, which is managing the appraisal, negotiation and purchasing process with landowners, stressed during the meeting that “we expect you to have questions. We expect you to want to have some time to review your documents yourselves or with your councils and ask us questions. We would like to be able to negotiate a settlement with you as quickly as possible.”

A Walk In The Buffer

Mawyer reminded attendees that the goal of the buffer around the reservoir was to provide “a natural, vegetated filter.”

When discussion began of what activities could or could not occur in the buffer, Mawyer clarified, “What can you do in the buffer? You can walk in it.”

Mawyer stressed that Henrico's desire was to “accommodate desires of the property owners,” in relation to whether they wanted to sell as much land as possible or as little as possible.

If desired, property owners could retain ownership of the buffer up to the flood elevation of the reservoir. Existing structures or houses will also be able to stay in the buffer, however no new structures can be built.

Mentioning his perception that the reservoir was promoted as being a development opportunity, Burruss later stated to The Herald that “this buffer is such a killer, you know, for any lands that will be left that you might think would be valuable store properties… I'm very disgusted.”

Several landowners voiced frustration over discussions of possible development around the reservoir which occurred earlier in the planning phases. While The Herald found no evidence of golf courses or hotels in the Malcom Pirnie presentation on a proposed reservoir in September 2002, the first benefit listed for the county was “recreation.”

However, the 2005 joint permit application for the reservoir assumes at least a 200-foot buffer around the reservoir and the final approved permit sights a 100-foot buffer. The current permit modification splits the difference, calling for a 150-foot buffer.

Similarly, a shift away from development language can be seen in the negotiations between Henrico and Cumberland. The original guiding principles agreed upon by the Board of Supervisors included an item for at least three public access areas that provide parking for a minimum of 30 cars; “public restrooms, cleaning and concession facilities;” boat ramps and piers extending at least 25 feet.

However, the final Memorandum of Understanding between Cumberland and Henrico does not contain such specific language, instead stating that Cumberland will have the “sole right to regulate development around the reservoir consistent with a Watershed Protect Plan.”

The Watershed Protection Plan referenced will be created and adopted by Cumberland, in consultation with Henrico. It's primary goal will be to ensure good water quality in the reservoir. Cumberland is also responsible for enforcing the plan.

Private Property

In a preliminary draft of the easement language provided to one of the property owners, Henrico will have “the right of ingress to and egress from the easement over the property of Grantor which lies between public or private roads and the easement for monitoring purposes.” It goes on to state that any damage done to private property and reported within 180 days will be repaired or reimbursed.

During the meeting with property owners, Henrico Assistant County Attorney Benjamin Thorpe, stated that easement language would provide “undefined access across that property to that utility easement.”

Property owners wondered why a few specific access points could not be designated instead of “unfettered access” across their remaining property. One citizen stated that “our remaining property is private property and that is how it should stay, not with an easement.”

Mawyer replied that because the reservoir contains almost 19 miles of shoreline it would be impossible to know where Henrico might need access to monitor or provide upkeep, for example, after a storm.

He added that crossing private land would be a rare, rare event, stating, “we do not run wild across private property of our current utility customers and we won't be running wild across your property either.”

Property owners also asked whether the building of the reservoir would be taken into account when their remaining property was assessed for tax purposes.

When The Herald raised property owner's assessment concerns with Commissioner of Revenue Anita French, she replied that the assessor certainly takes into consideration many factors when making calculations. When a reassessment is completed, the assessment company sends out a notice, providing property owners an opportunity to point out factors that may have not been considered. She also stated that, if need be, the Department of Taxation can come in to help with assessment on “something that is unusual.”

All parcels of land that Henrico is planning to buy are first submitted to the Cumberland's Planning and Zoning Office. During the meeting, Giles assured property owners that the county is requiring Henrico to buy an entire parcel if the remaining portion is less than two acres and therefore not a build-able lot.

Recreation At The Reservoir

During the meeting, Mawyer introduced Stephen Kesler, boating access specialist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fishery. The department plans to work with Henrico to design a public access facility with a boat landing on the reservoir.

When asked about boat restrictions on the reservoir, Mawyer stated that “this is Cumberland's call. If you want to have power boats and we think it can be safely done and Steve (Kesler) doesn't try to convince us that it's not safe, you can have power boats.”

One safety concern could potentially be with the standing trees, which will be left in the reservoir when it is filled in order to aid fish habitat. These standing trees under the surface of the water could provide enough risk to limit boat size or certain activities such as water skiing.

However, Kelser stated that the ramp would be designed to accommodate any size boat, so that if the trees pose less of a problem in 50 years and the restrictions change, larger boats could be accommodated.

When property owners raised concerns of boaters disembarking and coming onto their land, Mawyer reassured them that “generally, we are going to want to keep everybody in the boat, in the water.” The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries will also help monitor for public safety and fishing licenses, according to Mawyer.

Property owners also discussed restrictions on building their own docks. Due to the buffer restrictions, materials would have to be walked down to the shore or floated to the build sight. However, Mawyer stated that the guidelines for docks have not yet been finalized.