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Commissioners, property owner argue over roads

December 09, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - Tempers were tested, voices were raised and faces flushed a light shade of red last week - another Berkeley County Planning Commission meeting was in full swing.

"The question is: Will you address the (road) safety concerns that have been brought up here today?" Planning Commissioner Thomas Conlan bluntly asked Dennis Black, a property owner wanting preliminary approval for Waterfall Farm Estates, a 103-residential lot,152-town home project on 74 acres off Mouth of Opequon Road.

"I think the answer is that we have addressed the (concerns)" Black responded.

"You have not," Conlan replied

"Yeah, we have," Black returned.

"You have not," Conlan cemented.

"We have gone through the process of having the (state) highway department review their existing infrastructure," Black clarified. That infrastructure includes a partially blind one-lane railroad underpass on Brown Road with no traffic signal and a one-lane bridge on Mouth of Opequon Road that occasionally floods.

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"To get this commissioner's approval, you need to address it, and we may see each other in court ...," Conlan concluded before the discussion slogged on without resolution.

"We're trying to find a middle road here," Commission president Donald Fox eventually told Black's attorney, Richard Gay. "And at the moment, you can't seem to find the middle of anything."

"The middle," as of Friday, still wasn't clear after the Commission voted to table the request to allow Norwood Bentley, Berkeley County's legal counsel for the planning commission, to meet with the developer and his attorney. The project is expected to be revisited at the Commission's Dec. 17 meeting.

Though not required, the attorney and Black agreed to meet with Bentley, who has taken a legal position that planning commissioners can vote in the interest of protecting the "health, safety and welfare" of residents.

At the hearing, Gay argued that the county didn't define the phrase in their planning regulations and that vocal opposition by neighboring residents, a letter of concern by Bedington Volunteer Fire Department chief Scott Schill didn't provide legal grounds for denying the project.

"Obviously the roads are a problem, but that's not a reason to turn down the preliminary plat in this case," Gay said.

"You have no authority as far as I know (to deny the preliminary plan)," Gay said. "You must apply your ordinances as written."

When asked by Planning Commissioner H. Daniel Gantt if Black was willing to upgrade Mouth of Opequon Road and widen the bridge to two lanes, Gay intervened, asking how much it would cost.

"How much is a person's life worth?" Gantt responded after not receiving an answer.

And when Gay finally answered Gantt's question by indicating that Black was willing to contribute $40,000, Gantt, a contractor, was unimpressed.

"You forget what I do for a living," Gantt told Gay, a comment that prompted laughter among commissioners.

Conlan volunteered even more clarity.

"I think that's rather inadequate," Conlan said. "If you know the roads, you'll understand how inadequate that is."

During the public hearing for the project, Commissioners were told that two of Bedington Volunteer Fire Department's vehicles, their aerial tower truck for upper floor rescues and heavy rescue truck, can not pass through the railroad underpass on Brown Road.

"The normal route of travel to the proposed new construction would be Bedington Road to (Mouth of Opeqon Road), but during high-water periods, these vehicles just simply cannot access that area," Schill wrote in a letter he had Del. John Overington read at the hearing.

"This is a concern for any structures over one story tall, as without our aerial truck we may not be able to rapidly access the upper floors for rescue."

In the letter, Schill said his biggest concern was safety at the intersections of Bedington and Brown roads and Williamsport Pike (U.S. 11) and at Bedington Road and Mouth of Opequon Road.

"This new subdivision will surely add additional traffic to each of the intersections that already have a history of serious injury accidents," said Schill, noting a "significant increase" of injury accidents at Bedington and Mouth of Opequon roads in recent years.

Gay maintained that the road access wasn't in the developer's control and reiterated that the appropriate permits had been granted by state highways officials.

Overington said state transportation officials are sympathetic to the road improvement needs, but have said they don't have the money for making the improvements.

"We are creating a huge, unfunded liability," Overington said.

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