Bills that would authorize the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to enter into third-party contracts in support of recreational facilities at all state parks and forests have advanced through committees in both legislative chambers.
The Senate Natural Resources and House Government Organization committees on Monday respectively passed the nearly identical Senate Bill 485 and House Bill 4408. Each bill allows the director of Division of Natural Resources to enter into third-party contracts to finance, construct and operate “recreational, lodging and ancillary” facilities at state forests and parks.
The bills provoked concern that the state’s statutory definition of recreational facilities is too broad, potentially enabling amusement parks, casinos and racetracks, and other outsized attractions inside state parks and forests.
But James Bailey, deputy secretary and general counsel for the Department of Commerce that houses the Division of Natural Resources, dismissed that possibility as unrealistic. He argued before both committees that the bills will encourage private investment.
State law already allows the DNR director to enter into third-party contracts for financing, building and operating recreational, lodging and ancillary facilities at Chief Logan, Beech Fork, Tomlinson Run, Stonewall Jackson Lake, Lost River and Canaan Valley Resort state parks.
The bills would increase the maximum term of contracts for financing, building and operating recreational facilities from 25 to 50 years, a provision that Bailey contended would assure private entities investing in state facilities that they can recoup their investments. SB 485 states explicitly that those facilities must be new. HB 4408 does not.
“There are levels of investment that are possible that, in 20 years, [you] would never be able to recoup your investment,” Bailey said, adding that all contracts would still have a 30-day “out clause,” allowing the state to end the agreement if a private entity doesn’t meet its obligations.
Some lawmakers on both committees were wary of the state’s broad statutory definition of “recreational activities.” The definition is “cabins, lodges, swimming pools, golf courses, restaurants, commissaries and other revenue producing facilities in any state park or state forest.”
West Virginia Rivers Coalition executive director Angie Rosser argued against the legislation before the Senate Natural Resources Committee, citing concern that it could reduce the affordability and natural quality of state parks and puts too much power in the hands of the DNR director.
Bailey said he had no concerns with enabling the DNR director to enter into third-party contracts at all state parks and forests, noting that the director reports to the Department of Commerce and that significant contracts likely would go to both the Commerce Department and the Governor’s Office for approval.
Brett McMillion, deputy chief of West Virginia State Parks, said the state saw close to $450,000 in private investment through ACE Adventure Resort projects at Pipestem Resort and Tygart Lake state parks. McMillion noted that there had also been “a lot” of investment in marinas at Bluestone and Tygart Lake state parks.
Speaking before the Senate Natural Resources Committee, McMillion called SB 485 “a good piece of legislation.”
In contrast, retired State Parks district administrator Mark Wylie told the House Government Organization Committee that he had concerns about privatization affecting the character of state parks.
“If areas are privatized, I think you’ll see them get much more expensive and they’ll get out of the price range of the average West Virginian,” Wylie said.
State law requires contract extensions beyond the original 25-year term to be approved by the Joint Committee on Government and Finance. The bills would do away with that requirement, which Bailey argued is unconstitutional, violating the separation of powers doctrine.
Instead, the bills would require merely that contracts be presented to the Joint Committee on Government and Finance for review and comment prior to execution.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee advanced SB 485 to that chamber’s Finance Committee in a 6-5 vote. The House Organization Committee had received HB 4408 from that chamber’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and advanced it to the full House of Delegates.