OAK HILL — Having grown up in Fayette County, Bill Hannabass had for many years been aware that a tract of cliffs and woodland nicknamed Needleseye existed on the outskirts of Oak Hill, the town for which he now serves as city manager.
But it wasn’t until March 2016, when Marvin Davis, GIS coordinator for the City of Oak Hill, showed him a set of maps of the property produced with LIDAR three-dimensional laser imaging that he got his first view of the tract, then followed up with a site visit.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” he recalled on Tuesday, the day the City of Oak Hill officially assumed ownership of the 283-acre tract, now a city park, from the West Virginia Land Trust. “I thought the land should be protected and publicly owned. I needed to find out who owned it and see if it would be possible to buy.”
As it turned out, the property was owned by the Berwind Land Company, which was interested in selling it to an organization that would protect and preserve it.
An area real estate broker put Hannabass in contact with Ashton Berdine, lands program manager for the West Virginia Land Trust. After Berdine and other staffers examined the property, spoke with city officials and potential users, the Land Trust, in partnership with the City of Oak Hill, began negotiating with Berwind to buy the tract, with the intention of transferring it to the city once funds were available.
Having a local entity interested in owning, preserving and increasing recreational possibilities on the land made the project particularly appealing to the West Virginia Land Trust, said Brent Bailey, the organization’s executive director. So did having a willing seller, particularly one patient enough to wait an extra year for all the moving parts of the deal to come together before closing, Bailey said.
“We retained a development rights easement to ensure that the land would always be available for public use,” Bailey said, “but otherwise, the property is now owned by Oak Hill.”
Funds to buy the tract included $450,000 from the West Virginia Outdoor Heritage Fund, plus contributions from the Land Trust and City of Oak Hill.
“It’s a wonderful section of West Virginia Woodlands and rock formations, and a nice family recreation spot,” Bailey said. “It is also becoming a destination spot for rock climbers and boulderers.”
“There are almost two miles of cliffs in the park, some up to 125 feet high,” Hannabass said. The New River Alliance of Climbers laid out a trail that leads from a new paved parking area along Terry Road at the north end of the park to cliffs and boulders in the park’s interior, including the site’s namesake Needleseye. The feature is formed by a pair of massive sandstone boulders partially collapsed together, creating an archway leading to a section of cliff with several similar slot passages, tunnels and coves.
In coming months, more hiking and mountain bike trails are planned, Hannabass said. “We also plan to build a second entrance to the park on the Minden side of the property, and build picnic pavilions and restrooms with running water at each entrance.”
Signage in the park and along the roads and streets leading to it should begin appearing later this summer. The park lies within the Oak Hill city limits, which were expanded in 2015 to include most of the Minden area in order to acquire and upgrade a failing water and sewer plant.
“The New River Gorge Trail Alliance plans to connect the trails in Needleseye Park with the Rend Trail” in New River Gorge National River, Hannabass said. The Rend Trail, in turn, connects with other trails on National Park Service land and points beyond. ACE Outdoor Adventures owns land that abuts the park, he said, making it possible for its guests to eventually travel trails from ACE property that connect with the Needleseye system.
“In this area, recreation has proven to be an economic driver,” Hannabass said. “I think this park is a poster child for other parks that could be developed on former coal mines using Abandoned Mine Lands funds.”
“In addition to benefiting our local residents and their health, outdoor recreation opportunities strengthen our economy by increasing tourism, attracting new businesses and boosting the housing market,” said Jessica Spatafore, the Land Trust’s director of development and communications.
Following a walk-through of the park with Hannabass and Land Trust officials, West Virginia Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby took part in a ceremony commemorating the park’s transfer to City of Oak Hill ownership.