By Derek Tyson, The Welch News Editor
WELCH, W.Va. – A group of citizens approached the McDowell County Commission to raise concerns over leases from local land companies falling into the hands of new owners.
Charles Nixon, landowner in Skygusty, addressed the Commission first about gates going up on public accessible land.
“I spoke with the two main lease holders and requested to see a lease agreement and land survey showing property boundaries they were going by,” said Nixon. “My request was denied.”
Nixon said he had made several attempts to contact Pocahontas Land Company, but due to COVID-19, no one was in the office. Nixon claims that the leaseholders have numerous acres leased involved with a larger group of people and are putting gates up on all boundaries based off of an app called OnyxHunt on their phone.
“I need the Commission’s help in reaching the land company to get the facts about leasing and the surveys for boundaries and gates,” said Nixon. “This situation has caused traumatic stress to myself and many locals no longer being able to travel these haul roads and trails due to gates and people saying they’ve leased the land.”
Marlene Rasovich addressed the Commission next.
“We learned that Pocahontas Land Company, or art least the land holding division, was purchased by National Resource Partners, based out of Texas with a local office in Huntington,” said Rasovich. “While present during a phone call with one of the lease holders, we were told that gates would be going up on the boundaries of our property.”
At that time, Mr. Nixon asked the leaseholder how to contact the company about leasing and the information was denied, according to Rasovich.
“My father grew up in O’Toole and is 80 years old. During COVID, the only livelihood he has other than his family is to get in his truck and drive in the mountains. Nothing makes him happier,” said Rasovich. “When you throw up gates where he walked barefoot as a boy, you’re locking people out of places they’ve traveled or hunted for 100 years, across multiple generations.’
“They’ve had the freedom to do this with their families because access was never denied, but now that’s changed with no other explanation than this group purchased from Pocahontas Land,” continued Rasovich. “I think that information should have been made public, offering citizens a chance to purchase land. I don’t know if someone could petition McDowell County’s representatives to hold a local meeting for the residents of McDowell County.”
Commissioner Michael Brooks said he and Commissioner Patterson would certainly reach out to the representatives.
“We’ll ask them to come for a meeting, sit down and discuss some things we’d like them to address,” said Brooks. “We don’t have any authority over the land company, but I agree with you. A public notice giving people that have been here their entire life a chance to buy property instead of someone from out of state should have been made.”
“I work in most of these areas, we see the gates going up,” said Patterson. “We don’t have any control over the land company or lease holders, but we can facilitate a meeting with Senators, Delegates and the Land Company.
“I had a farm lease with Pocahontas Land Company for 40 years,” said Commissioner Cody Estep. “400 some acres that I maintained for them. Out of the blue, I got a letter from them. The lease payment jumped 35 a year to 45, then to 1200 a year. I lost the lease.”
Commissioner Brooks had issues in the past with a lease as well, almost losing his own.
“I don’t think it’s fair, I think the Land Company should have put something in the paper to inform local residents,” said Brooks. “We didn’t know anything about it outside of personal experiences.”
“Another concern is now I’m wondering who’s going to end up with it, because it butts up against my property,” said Estep. “I’ve protected it for all these years.”
A local hunter suspected the lease holders aim to charge hunters for using the property.
“These land companies fall under managed timber land,” said Brooks. “They pretty much pay pennies on the dollar for taxes. But now they’re merchandising their property and I’m not aware of any new business licenses in place.”
Gary Police Chief Patrick McKinney also spoke on the issue at Wednesday’s meeting.
“The property owner concerns are grave, but my concern as an emergency responder is if someone goes trespassing on Mike’s land and shoots their self, Mike will come open the gate and let us through,” said McKinney. “These people are going to have to come to the LEPC or you all and work out a way in the case of a forest fire, atv accident, hunting accident, that we can get vehicles through those gates.”
McKinney acknowledged that bolt cutters are standard issue equipment for all fire fighters, but that creates new trouble.
“We’re going to have to get to those properties in an emergency,” said McKinney. “We have the project with the Sheriff’s Office that do work with folks suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. You get a man that’s been on a property for years, that’s where he always goes. He’s going to pull a pickup up to the gate and go walking, then we’ll have to get through to find him. While you all hold that meeting, that’s another thing that needs to be addressed.”
“I hope there’s something we can do to contact the representatives and have them look at this to find a solution that will benefit all the people of McDowell County,” said Brooks. “Not punish people because they can’t pay a thousand or three. We’re hoping this dialogue will open some doors and get people some answers. I know you’re mad, I can see the red in all of your faces. We appreciate you guys and gals for being civil during this time.”
“I was just counting, at least 25 people showed up today. When that many people show up on a Wednesday and 5 o’clock, it shows that the community is really standing together,” said Patterson. “That’s what we have to do. We’ll facilitate a meeting and keep everyone informed about what’s going on.”
Other issues discussed at Wednesday’s meeting included:
• The Regional Jail bill climbed to $1,091,897.50, costing the County between 70 and 75 thousand dollars a month.
“That’s killing us and we’ve got to figure something out,” said Commission President Cecil Patterson. “But with social distancing protocols, you can only have so many in jail cells and transfers are limited. Everyone is doing all they can, but this is killing us.”
• 7 hires at Steven’s Correctional Center were approved and welcomed aboard by the three Commissioners. After an executive session, the termination of one employee at Steven’s was also approved.
• After weeks of review, the Commission also approved a tower consultant contract.
“That was a contract to bring on a consultant to look at the needs of where towers need to be located in the county, engineering designs and so forth, and to help us apply for grants to get additional cellular and public safety coverage in the County,” said Jimmy Gianato.