Four members of the Jefferson County Development Authority who resigned last Friday said they were tired of the vitriol surrounding Rockwool.
In all, 12 of the board’s 21 members signed resignation letters, delivered to Jefferson County Commission President Josh Compton on Friday.
Although two members cited health reasons in their letters, the others were short, announcing their resignation effective 12:01 p.m. Friday. Chairman Eric Lewis’ resignation letter was nearly a full page.
“We did what we thought was best for Jefferson County and had no ill intent and no ulterior motives. It is quite unfortunate that these good people, and I include myself in that group, have been attacked so viciously,” Lewis wrote. He didn’t mention Rockwool by name, but referred to “certain types of manufacturing.”
The resignations came as criticism surrounding Rockwool, a manufacturing plant being built in Jefferson County, escalates. The coal- and gas-fired plant would create stone wool insulation, emitting potentially dangerous material, like formaldehyde and particulate matter, in the process.
The Development Authority, whose members are unpaid, has particularly been under fire for brokering a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement with Rockwool. Signed Oct. 3, 2017, by Rockwool, the county commission, sheriff, assessor, Board of Education and the Ranson City Council, the agreement allows the JCDA to hold the title to the 130-acre site and lease it back to Rockwool after the facility has been built.
A lawsuit, filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court earlier this month by a nonprofit citizens group, alleges that the agreement is unconstitutional and asks that Rockwool pay its real and personal property taxes “in a manner equal and uniform to other Jefferson County taxpaying citizens.”
The JCDA and county commission also are the subject of two other lawsuits from the same citizens group, alleging that they violated state Freedom of Information Act laws.
“It was just the whole thing, we are a volunteer, nonpaid board, and this was not . . . the aggravation that we went through, quite honestly, is not worth it,” said Steve Stolipher, a member who resigned Friday.
Dan Casto, who also resigned, and Stolipher said other members had mentioned quitting months ago. Both denied meeting as a group — a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
“I can’t exactly tell you how it all transpired because, in some cases, I don’t know,” Stolipher said. “But I will tell you this: We did not meet in quorum, not behind doors, we did not all meet in a group and have dinner.”
He linked the timing to a Facebook post made by Compton that encouraged JCDA members to delay voting on a water line extension for the project if they “are not comfortable voting or feel they need more information prior to making a decision.” The vote had been repeatedly delayed.
“If the county commission wanted to delay, maybe they should have other members on board,” Casto said.
The JCDA is a separate entity, but its board members are appointed by the county commission. To defy Compton, Casto said, would make it look like the JCDA was a “rogue entity.”
“They know that Rockwool is going to be built, they know they don’t have the power to do a thing about it, their legal counsel has all told them so,” Casto said of the elected officials in the county. “We were a convenient scapegoat.”
The only question in front of the board was whether to extend the water line, not whether to approve Rockwool, said Ben Martz, who also resigned. He said he supports both, though.
“Remember, why I joined was to help and [give] input, and it deteriorated to the point that it’s not useful for me to sit there and listen to people yell and scream,” Martz said. “I had some great conversations with some people that had concerns, and they were great conversations and they were constructive, but the last couple meetings were not constructive.”
In an interview following the resignations Friday, Lewis said the mid-term election was a factor. In the Eastern Panhandle, candidates who opposed Rockwool won seats in the West Virginia House of Delegates and Senate, and on the county commission.
“Clearly, the election — the involvement of the Rockwool discussion in the election — created results, and those results ended up with several politicians who campaigned on stopping Rockwool winning,” Lewis said.
Casto said other elected officials had privately encouraged the JCDA to support Rockwool but publicly denounced the project. He declined to elaborate.
“I have been subject to enough abuse over last five months to last a lifetime, and it’s just not worth it,” he said. “The threats, the threatening phone calls, mail — it’s just not worth it. Especially if government leaders aren’t going to exercise leadership.”
Despite the mass exodus, business will continue as usual after new members are appointed, said Nicolas Diehl, executive director of the JCDA. By law, the board must have no fewer than 12 and no more than 21 members. Positions will be advertised, and then the county will hold interviews, Compton said. He said he assumes the board will be refilled with 12 new members.
Jefferson County Vision, the nonprofit group that grew out of a citizen Facebook group, said the exodus presented a “new opportunity for a positive vision for Jefferson County.”
“It is time to turn the page on subsidized heavy industry as economic strategy here,” the group said in a statement.
Diehl opted to stay in his position, he said, because he supports Rockwool and “felt like somebody needed to be here to continue to represent the agency.”
“I was surprised that we had so many resignations, but I understood it’s been a tumultuous several months in Jefferson County,” he said.
Asked about Rockwool on WV MetroNews’ “Talkline,” Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., called it a “local issue.”
“It’d been approved by the local government, by the local planning commission; all that occurred,” he said. “I had nothing to do with any of that.”