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Berkeley takes high ground in water battle

April 27, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - In an effort to remain neutral, the Berkeley County Commissioners on Thursday declined to join a legal battle that pits one county public service district against two others.

Instead, the commission unanimously approved a letter of support for a water improvement project that would include a connection between the city and Hedgesville, W.Va.

The Berkeley County Public Service District and the Hedgesville Public Service District are in favor of installing a water line from the soon-to-be-built Exit 14 off Interstate 81 to W.Va. 9.

Bill Alexander, the director of the Hedgesville district, said it would be "a rare opportunity" to connect water lines across district boundaries.

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"We think it's in the best interest of the citizens," he said during Thursday's County Commission meeting, where he was joined by fellow supporters from the Hedgesville and Berkeley County districts and the Berkeley County Development Authority.

"It's tough to get in the middle ... but it's a plan that looks like it makes sense," said Commission President D. Wayne Dunham.

Clarence E. "CEM" Martin III, the attorney for the Berkeley County Public Service District, said he would draft a letter of support for the commissioners to sign.

The Opequon Public Service District, which opposes the proposal to connect the city's water system and Hedgesville's, this month filed a petition with the state's Public Service Commission to intervene.

The petition states that the Opequon board reviewed the proposal and "concluded that the data does not support" it.

The Opequon district is connected to the Hedgesville district at the General Motors plant near Grade Road, north of W.Va. 9, according to the petition.

Alexander said Hedgesville would continue to buy water from Opequon under a contract between them.

Commissioner Robert Burkhart said he thinks that "personality problems" are the likely cause of tension between the districts.

The Public Service Commission has not yet set a hearing on whether Opequon can intervene in the project, according to Connie Graley, a secretary with the commission.

The connection - which Opequon General Manager Richard Beegle said would stretch about 12,000 feet, or a little over 2 miles - is a small part of an $18.1 million water initiative that is mostly for the City of Martinsburg.

The city plans to spend about $15 million on two filtration plants, a water tank and mains along the west side of I-81. Beegle said the Opequon district supports that part of the project "100 percent."

The additional $3 million is being paid by the Berkeley County and Hedgesville districts.

Alexander said Hedgesville will pay the debt service on the water line from Exit 14 to W.Va. 9 and Berkeley County will pay for additional capacity in the new plant the city is building.

He said the Berkeley County Development Authority favors the connection to Hedgesville because it would run along 200 acres owned by CSX Corp. and a private owner, a potential site for commercial use.

Beegle said the addition is unnecessary, as there is already a water tank and pump station that could serve residents there. "My concern is if they consolidate, my customers would pay for the debt service," he said.

In a move that's separate from the project, the three public service districts are considering merging into one Berkeley County Water Public Service District.

The Berkeley County district serves about 5,500 buildings and Hedgesville serves about 1,300, according to Alexander. Beegle said there are about 4,300 customers in the Opequon district.

The new district would cover the entire county, except Martinsburg.

The Berkeley County Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed merger on May 10 at 7:30 p.m.

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