Reading the megasite-study tea leaves

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Augusta County officials have vigorously resisted making details of a 400-page report on a proposed industrial megasite in the Weyers Cave area public.

So … what does that tell us about the nature of the study?

“The way the exemption for economic development is drawn is to allow government to protect records provided by a business considering locating or expanding to the government for economic-development and papers generated by the government in response to that or related to that. It would have to be tied down to a specific prospect or prospects,” said Maria Everett, the executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council.

“It couldn’t be, well, what’s our general economic-development plan going to be? Do us a consultant’s report about what may be feasible for us to ask in a general context? FOIA says you have to narrowly construe the exemptions. You can’t make them broader. The consultant’s report is going to have to be specifically related to a prospect or prospects that are in consideration – because the whole basis is bargaining position. So it presumes bargaining,” Everett told The Augusta Free Press.

So it could not be true, then, as some members of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors have stated publicly, that the report initiated last year is not tied to any specific industrial prospect. Board chairman Wendell Coleman said that very much directly – “we have no prospect right now” – at a supervisors meeting earlier this month.

Coleman told the AFP last week that he is “not in a position to discuss any possible pending industrial prospect” – this in the face of reports in The New York Times and several Virginia newspapers regarding the apparent interest in a Virginia location of Toyota that has been talked about in relation to a Weyers Cave site for the past two years.

“What I can say is that we in Augusta County have completed a technical study in the Weyers Cave area. Some people are wanting the particulars of that study. We are not of the opinion that legally we have to release that – and we as of now have not released that,” Coleman said.

“We have released what we were required under Freedom of Information to release – which is that we have had a study done. We have what we think is a sound difference of opinion on what we have to release – and until we get to a point that we feel like it’s in everybody’s best interests for us to go public, then we obviously won’t go public,” Coleman said.

That point was made clear in a letter to Middlebrook resident Betty Jo Hamilton, who filed a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act asking for the release of portions of the industrial-prospect study. Hamilton’s request was for the release of all portions of the study that do not relate to site location, land acquisition or obtaining land options related to any specific industrial prospect.

“With respect to the study, all portions are excluded from the disclosure requirements of the act, pursuant to Virginia Code 2.2-3705.6(3). Therefore, I continue to exercise my discretion to withhold the study in its entirety,” county community-development director Dale Cobb wrote in a letter to Hamilton dated April 13.

Frosty Landon, the executive director of the Roanoke-based Virginia Coalition for Open Government, is on the same page as Everett as to what this means as far as the nature of the study is concerned.

“If the study was done for a named project, I assume the economic-development exemption could be invoked. But if it was simply a study of pros and cons of a specific site for possible industrial use not tied to any prospect, that ought to be public,” Landon told the AFP.

Riverheads supervisor Nancy Sorrells offered a roundabout confirmation of the fact that the report in question has to do with a specific industrial prospect.

“Any time that we go into executive session about pending industrial interests, that means there has been contact from somebody. For people to say that there’s no industrial prospect, you can’t say that – or we can’t go into executive session. So there are industrial prospects – but there are industrial prospects out there all the time,” Sorrells said.

Sorrells and Middle River supervisor Kay Frye have both indicated that they would support a move to release details of the study that would not reveal the interested prospect’s identity to the public.

“As we’re looking at our future, that information needs to be out there so that the public can begin the discussion of the pros and cons of such development,” Sorrells told the AFP.

“We’re doing this backwards. We need to talk about this in public before we decide what to do,” Frye said. “We need to debate whether or not we want to see the county move in this direction. If the people decide that they want to do this, then we can proceed. But right now, our comprehensive plan says in plain English that we want to go after small- and medium-sized manufacturers that can employ several hundred people. If we’re going to go in a different direction, we should make sure that that is what the people of this county want to do.

“This is the single-biggest thing to come to Augusta County since the construction of Interstate 81. We need to engage the public in a discussion of how to proceed – instead of working on it behind closed doors,” Frye told the AFP.

Hamilton said she is going to continue to put pressure on the board of supervisors to engage the public in this discussion.

“I think it is imperative that we do this right not just for this occasion, but for the future,” Hamilton said. “If we don’t get this particular industry, it gives leaders the chance to practice getting one. So they might not get this one, but further on down the line, they will have had this process behind them of what it takes to do it, and then the next time, they might be successful. So I think we need to be talking not only about this one specific instance, but we need to be talking about the county’s industrial philosophy altogether.

“It would be nice if the supervisors and the county and the citizens in the county could come to a decision – have an industrial-philosophy input session, if you will,” Hamilton said. “We’ve had a committee for the comp plan, we’ve had a committee to talk about agriculture in the area. Why not have one to study the industrial prospects for the county? We don’t have an economic-development director for the county – and it may be time to start thinking about that, or at least have something in place so that we can know what’s going on with these situations.

“I’d rather not have this same discussion over and over and over again,” Hamilton told the AFP.

Coleman recognizes that the current discussion might be just the tip of the iceberg in that respect.

“We sit at the intersection of two major interstates. We have two rail lines. We have an airport. We have lots of the things that industry is looking for – in addition to quality education and being a right-to-work state. So to think that there aren’t companies throughout the country and throughout the world that wouldn’t think that Augusta County might be a target – they’re missing the boat,” Coleman said.

“We have been expected by a significant segment of our population to do our due diligence – and not simply sit around and wait. You can’t wait. You’ve got to do the proper planning up front,” Coleman said.

“Our challenge is having some kind of notion about what kinds of industry that we want. We could have pretty much already filled our industrial park – but we’re not just about bringing anybody and everybody into our industrial park. That’s not going to, in our judgment, serve the needs of Augusta County and the needs of the region,” Coleman said.

This discussion could have gotten under way without the acrimony that we have seen had county officials taken Everett’s advice on the release of information from the study report.

“I encouraged the county that they don’t want to do anything that messes up their deal or causes whoever is thinking about coming to go to a neighboring county or North Carolina or wherever it may be – but once people are onto something, there may be some benefit to issuing a press release offering generic information that creates the sense that we’re withholding this because we’re trying to work out the best deal possible with your money,” Everett said.

“FOIA does recognize that government can play close to the vest – and it’s still in the public interest. It’s all just about how you do it,” Everett said.

(Originally published 04-24-06)

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