A Jefferson County judge threw out a lawsuit Friday over Rockwool, the controversial manufacturing plant being built in the county, with both sides declaring victory.
The lawsuit, filed in November, had said the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement was unconstitutional and that Rockwool should pay the same ad valorem taxes every other taxpayer is responsible for.
On Friday, Circuit Court Judge David Hammer said he couldn’t rule on the PILOT because it was merely a proposal, not a binding agreement.
“This ruling is an important step toward restoring our local democracy and removing Rockwool from our community once and for all,” said Shaun Amos, a member of Jefferson County Vision, the nonprofit citizens group that filed the lawsuit in November.
But Michael Zarin, a spokesman for Rockwool, the company building the coal- and gas-fired manufacturing plant, also said the company is happy with the decision.
“We’re pleased that the court has dismissed the JCV PILOT lawsuit and that the court recognizes the broad authority that West Virginia development authorities have to offer economic incentives, including PILOT agreements,” Zarin said.
The city of Ranson, along with the Jefferson County Board of Education, sheriff, assessor and County Commission, signed the PILOT agreement, which essentially allowed the Jefferson County Development Authority to hold the title to the 130 acres of land in Ranson and lease it back to Rockwool in lieu of paying state property taxes.
“Rockwool and their supporters used PILOT to make it seem like we had no choice about accepting this project,” Amos said.
It was one of several agreements and incentives offered to Rockwool, which is planning to create stone wool insulation using milled coal and natural gas, emitting materials like formaldehyde and particulate matter, in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. The plant has sparked outrage and controversy in the region because it’s being built across the street from an elementary school, among other reasons.
In his dismissal order, Hammer noted the PILOT agreement was simply a proposal, not an agreement, because the county Development Authority didn’t sign the agreement.
“Absent the JDCA’s assent evidenced by a vote of its board, the PILOT is not an enforceable agreement — it is merely a proposal,” Hammer wrote in his order.
Had the JCDA signed it, the property would have been exempt from the ad volorem tax, a state tax, only if considered a public property, the judge said.
“Rockwool is a private corporation that does not serve any public purpose,” Chris Stroech, a lawyer for Jefferson County Vision, said. “We remain hopeful that the proper governing bodies agree and stand ready to challenge any determination otherwise.”
At the time the PILOT agreement was signed, in October 2017, the Development Authority had an almost entirely different makeup. In November, 12 of the board’s 21 members resigned, citing the mounting controversy surrounding Rockwool.
It was not clear Friday how the Development Authority will act on the PILOT agreement or if Rockwool will proceed without the incentives.
“We are fully confident that relevant authorities will deliver the promised economic incentives,” Zarin said.
The Development Authority did not respond to a phone call seeking comment Friday.
It’s not the only legal fight Rockwool has been involved with in the county. In April, Rockwool sued the Board of Education over the board’s offer to buy property from Rockwool for a student center. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia, and both parties later settled.
When they settled, Rockwool said it would fund an air-monitoring program through the end of 2022 at North Jefferson and TA Lowery elementary schools, if the board installed the air monitors. Rockwool also agreed to give the board $250,000 to buy property for the student center.
Rockwool is expected to start operations in fall 2020.