The state Supreme Court ruled Friday that a Lincoln County family was wrongly forced to sell its homeplace to make way for a mountaintop removal mine.Justices said a lower court was wrong to discount the family’s “sentimental or emotional interests” in the property in favor of the economic concerns of a coal operator.Writing for the court, Justice Robin Davis said that the Lincoln County Circuit Court decision, if allowed to stand, “would permit commercial entities to always ‘evict’ pre-existing owners.”“I’m on cloud nine,” said Leon Miller, whose family fought the forced sale to Arch Coal Inc.
“This is going to change the law from now on as far as people taking your property,” Miller said. “I think it’s about time somebody stood up to these people.”St. Louis-based Arch Coal had forced Miller and his family to sell their homeplace along the Mud River in Lincoln County.For 100 years, Miller’s wife and family owned the 75-acre tract. The family homeplace includes a farmhouse, built in 1920, several small barns and a garden.John Caudill, a coal miner who was blinded in a mining accident in the 1930s, and his wife, Lydia Caudill, raised 10 children in the home.Today, the family no longer lives there. But some heirs spend almost every weekend there.Arch Coal wants to tear down the family’s ancestral home. It stands in the way of the company’s plans to continue to expand its Hobet 21 mountaintop removal complex. Last year, Hobet 21 produced about 5.2 million tons of coal, making it among the largest surface mines in the state. Under Hobet’s plans, “a valley fill and in impoundment pond would destroy and inundate the farmhouse and outbuildings and bury the immediate surrounding land under the valley fill.”
Over the last few years, Arch’s Ark Land Co. has bought out some of the Caudill heirs. Currently, the company owns a 67.5 percent interest in the property.When Miller’s wife and six other heirs refused to sell the rest, Ark Land went to court.Under state property law, a judge can order land split, or partitioned, if various owners cannot agree on how the land should be used. Through partition orders, land can actually be split among owners. This is called “in-kind” partition.Or, the land can be auctioned through a partition sale.Generally, West Virginia law requires in-kind partitions — and prohibits court-ordered sales — if such a split can be done “conveniently,” and if a forced sale would prejudice the interests of the owners who don’t want to sell.
In Lincoln County Circuit Court, Arch Coal lawyers sought to force the remaining Caudill heirs to sell.A mining engineer working for the heirs testified that the property could be partitioned in kind. The engineer said the land surrounding the family home did not have coal deposits, and could therefore be partitioned. An expert for the company said doing so would increase Arch Coal’s mining costs by several million dollars.Judge Jay M. Hoke sided with the company, and Arch Coal bought the land at an auction for $500,000. The Caudill heirs appealed Hoke’s ruling.In its Friday decision, the Supreme Court said it was “troubled” by Hoke’s conclusion “that partition by sale was necessary because the economic value of the property would be less if partitioned in kind.”In an 18-page opinion, Davis cited rulings in Connecticut, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia that said money is not the only consideration in such matters.“In a partition proceeding in which a party opposes the sale of property, the economic value of the property is not the exclusive test for deciding whether to partition in kind or by sale,” Davis wrote.
“Evidence of longstanding ownership, coupled with sentimental or emotional interests in the property, may also be considered in deciding whether the interests of the party opposing the sale will be prejudiced by the property’s sale,” she wrote. “This latter factor should ordinarily control when it is shown that the property can be partitioned in kind, though it may entail some economic inconvenience to the party seeking a sale.”Davis wrote that the justices “are very sensitive to the fact that Ark Land will incur greater costs in conducting its business on the property as a result of partitioning in kind.“However, Ark Land voluntarily took an economic gamble that it would be able to get all of the Caudill family members to sell their interests in the property,” Davis wrote. “Ark Land’s gamble failed.”Chief Justice Elliott Maynard concurred in part and dissented in part in the majority ruling. Maynard reserved the right to file a separate opinion later.Justice Larry Starcher concurred, and reserved the right to file a concurring opinion later.Phil Melick, a Jackson Kelly lawyer who represented Ark Land, referred questions to Deck Sloan, an Arch Coal media spokesman in St. Louis. Sloan did not return a phone call.Charleston lawyer John Barrett, who represented the Caudill heirs, said Friday afternoon, “This decision says family lands are worthy of protection, and economic interests in land aren’t the only kinds of interests that our law recognizes.“As every West Virginian knows, there are some things that money can’t buy.”To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.