The “F- Word” in Westmoreland County – Farming, Fishing, Forestry, Fun… and Fracking

taylorsvilleAs noted in a recent Westmoreland News article, the residents of the Northern Neck are debating the impacts of potential natural gas extraction by fracking.

In the Taylorsville Basin, it’s more than just a political discussion.  Over 80,000 acres have been leased by a company that assembles packages for sale to other companies that develop gas fields.

If geologists and economists judge that there is a valuable-enough natural resource to justify the costs of drilling and construction of a network of gathering lines, then landowners could receive significant revenue.

Cheap gas won’t stimulate many jobs in the area, once drilling is completed.  The Northern Neck is not a center of manufacturing; lower energy costs will not cause companies to build factories with high-paying jobs in Colonial Beach or Warsaw.  The Atlantic Coast Pipeline will bring cheap Appalachian shale gas to Waynesboro, central Virginia, and Hampton Roads, where factories are more likely to grow.

The fear is that energy development could damage the existing economy in Westmoreland County, King George County, and the surrounding area.  Extracting the natural resource from the subsurface could affect the natural resources on the surface.

Farming and fishing depend upon clean water.  Tourism and the construction of second homes for vacations will be limited, if fracking fluids contaminate surface streams or if the landscape appears industrial.

Groundwater may be the most-affected resource.  Continue reading

Bugling in Buchanan

elkbugleMating season is arriving for the elk in Buchanan County.

The last native elk was killed in Virginia in 1855… but they’re back, a second time.

The Virginia Game Commission re-introduced elk west of the Blue Ridge (plus Virginia Beach and Cumberland County) between 1913-1922, but the populations lacked grazing habitat, especially during the winter.

Farmers who had carefully collected hay for feeding cattle during the winter were not pleased when elk found their pastures.  By 1970, the elk were gone again – except for the herd imported for Bellwood Farms near Richmond.  The military’s purchase for conversion into Bellwood Depot included a commitment to maintain that herd.  It’s still there for wildlife viewing.

Kentucky imported elk for hunting, starting in 1997.  The revegetated strip mines provided grazing habitat, and the population expanded to the point where elk migrated into Virginia’s part of the Appalachian Plateau.  Farmers grew concerned, but the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries saw an opportunity to re-establish a large enough population to allow hunting again.

Wise and Dickenson county officials objected, reflecting Farm Bureau concerns, but Buchanan County officials authorized release of elk that had been trapped and relocated from Kentucky.  (The 1920’s elk came from Yellowstone National Park; by then, elk had been extirpated from the eastern states.)

This summer, 20 calves were born.  The population grew from the original 70 imported from Kentucky to  around 90.

Male elk will be bugling for mates and providing a tourist attraction this Fall in Buchanan County.  When the population reaches 400, hunting will be authorized.

For more, see Elk in Virginia.

The Battle of “White House Landing” – 200 years ago today

belvoir1814200 years ago, the Americans and British were fighting the War of 1812. The British were winning.

In mid-August, 1814, the British fleet in the Chesapeake Bay launch a pincer attack on Washington, DC. The army and most of the fleet sailed up the Patuxent River, marched west, defeated the American forces at Bladensburg, and burned the public building (and one newspaper office) in Washington DC.

The other half of the pincer was the Potomac Flotilla. It sailed up the Potomac River, but was slow in getting past the shoals and mudbanks. When Admiral Cockburn reached Washington, he realized that his other forces had not arrived yet. The British evacuated DC, rather than stayed to wreak more havoc.

The Potomac Flotilla did not get close to DC until three days later. The Americans abandoned Fort Washington without a fight on August 27, and Alexandria surrendered a second time. (Alexandria’s leaders had surrendered to Admiral Cockburn first when he arrived in DC, but he simply returned to his ships on the Patuxent River.)

The Potomac Flotilla agreed not to destroy Alexandria, if left undisturbed while emptying the warehouses of flour, tobacco, cotton, and other valuable. The British also seized commercial ships in the harbor; officers and crew were granted a share of the captured goods and prize ships, when later sold.

As the British looted Alexandria, the Virginia militia organized downstream. They chose to fortify at a location where the deep river channel came closest to bluffs on the Virginia shore, in front of the ruins of William Fairfax’s plantation at Belvoir.

A structure on the shoreline there was known locally as the “white house.”  The Battle of White House Landing happened nearly 20 miles downstream from the President’s House that had just been burned in the nation’s capital.
Continue reading

Atlantic Coast Pipeline

atlanticpipelineDominion has partnered with Duke Energy and two other companies, and proposed a new pipeline to carry Marcellus/Utica shale gas to markets in Virginia and North Carolina.

The most-organized opposition is in Augusta and Nelson counties, though individual landowners can not block the pipeline from crossing their land because the General Assembly has given utilities the power of eminent domain.

The Friends of Nelson described the project as “a speculative venture to profit from the massive increase in natural gas supplies due to highly controversial hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking.’”

All of that is true, but not necessarily cause for alarm.
Continue reading

Pulaski Bounces (OK, Crawls…) Back

pulaskipawnIn the 1992 presidential debates, Ross Perot said the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would create a “giant sucking sound” as jobs were pulled out of the manufacturing sector in the US.

Pulaski experienced a hurricane of job losses.  5,000 jobs disappeared as furniture and textile companies closed facilities in Pulaski; over 500 jobs were lost in “one fell swoop” as the Renfro sock factory closed in 2004.

It’s not over.  Caterpillar pulled out in 2013, taking another 240 jobs.  Today, the store in the heart of downtown Pulaski across from the courthouse is Pulaski Pawn.

The good news: Pulaski has managed to attract new employers to fill the massive, empty factories.

It did not follow the model proposed by Richard Florida… Continue reading

The Bridge That Does Not Exist

jordanbridgeThe new South Norfolk Jordan Bridge is located on the South Branch of the Elizabeth River.  At that site, the middle of the river is the boundary between the cities of Chesapeake and Portsmouth.

However, the bridge is not located in either city – according to the General Assembly.  It floats above the political layer on the map.

The 150-tall bridge replaced a drawbridge constructed in 1928 as a private toll bridge.  After 50 years, all debt was paid and the City of Chesapeake gained ownership of the old bridge in 1977.  Crossing it was free until 1995, when the city re-instated a toll to pay for repairs.

The city closed the old span in 2008, after deciding that more repairs would be too expensive.  A private company then arranged to build a new bridge, getting $100 million in private funding.  The city transferred its ownership of the land, and the General Assembly authorized tolls without State Corporation Commission review.

To subsidize the deal, the City of Chesapeake agreed that it would not collect property taxes on the now-private bridge for 15 years  – but the bridge is partially within the City of Portsmouth.  That city made no such deal.  Since the bridge was no longer government-owned property, it was no longer exempt from real estate assessment and taxes.

Portsmouth calculated that it should collect $500,000/year in property taxes from whatever part of the $100 million bridge was within the city. The United Bridge Partners simply ignored the property tax bills sent by Portsmouth.

In its 2014 session, the General Assembly included language in the budget that  declared the bridge was  not “within any locality to which it is attached.”   Unless modified, the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge is no longer within the boundaries of  either city, and Chesapeake or Portsmouth will never be able to collect property taxes.


The Secret Ballot is Not-So-Secret in a Corner of the 38th District

d2precinctOn August 20, 2014, voters in District 38 elected Republican Ben Chafin to the State Senate, replacing State Sen. Phillip Puckett (who had resigned). That was a significant election, because Puckett had been a Democrat.

The result shifted control of the State Senate to the Republican Party, ending the 20-20 balance that allowed Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam to break ties in most votes.  Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe now must deal with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a Republican-controlled State Senate.

One curious feature in that special election: according to the Virginia State Board of Elections, only one voter in Part 2 of the D-3 precinct cast a ballot.  That part of the precinct has only three homes, the result of a 1986 annexation that left an enclave of Montgomery County surrounded by the City of Radford plus a 2011 redistricting which included only that tiny enclave of Montgomery County within the 38th District.

The names of the residents on Norwood Street in that enclave are available through the county’s real estate assessment records.  The political parties can obtain the list of voters from the Virginia State Board of Elections, to create get-out-the-vote tools such as Virginia Votebuilder of the Democratic Party.

So a little sleuthing will reveal who in Precinct D-3 voted for Ben Chafin, the Republican candidate.  The “secret ballot” in that particular election is not so secret…

(For more, see Town and City Boundaries – and Annexation and “Our view: No secret ballot for some voters” in The Roanoke Times.