Barboursville, Va., Residents Win State High Court Mine Ruling

For three years, the residents of historic Barboursville have fought plans for a strip mine in their midst, on farmland little changed since colonial days.

Jan. 20—For three years, the residents of historic Barboursville have fought plans for a strip mine in their midst, on farmland little changed since colonial days.

For three years, the ragtag collection of come-heres and born-heres, blacks and whites, rich and poor, have lost that fight to big business and their own county government, which has characterized mining jobs and tax income as worthy trades for the ages-old quiet and pastoral beauty of these hills near James Madison's Montpelier estate.

But their three years of heartache may be over: The Virginia Supreme Court sided with the villagers Friday, ruling that while the mine might be permitted on a Barboursville hayfield, a proposed road to the pit is outlawed by Orange County's own ordinances.

Without such a road, trucks can't reach the field to remove its bounty of Triassic Age shale, the silty red clay that Tennessee-based General Shale Products Corp. had hoped to turn into bricks.

"It's awesome," said Jason Capelle, who lives on a neighboring lot and helped marshal opposition to the project, and who learned of the victory by cell phone as he mended a cow pasture fence Saturday afternoon.

"It's exciting. But it's not over. We're at risk as long as they own the land."

The saga began when Capelle and neighbors learned that General Shale was poised to buy 139 acres ringed by large homes, the popular Horton Vineyards and a black settlement that reputedly dates to Emancipation.

The company planned to scrape loose the earth there, collect it in piles and truck the piles away, and to keep doing it for up to 30 years.

Orange County's zoning laws allow mining on agricultural land by special permit — which officials granted despite protests that it would ruin property values, the settlement's nascent tourism industry, and the character of an area steeped in history.

So the homeowners sued. Part of the hayfield was zoned for residential use, rather than agricultural, they noted; the residential strip was a ways from the mine site, but it was crossed by the planned access road — and trucking the mine's spoils, they argued, constituted mining activity, which wasn't permitted even with the county's OK.

A circuit court judge disagreed, finding the road to be an "accessory use" to mining, rather than mining proper.

Friday's opinion, however, held that such accessory uses in a zoning district had to be connected with activities deemed lawful in that district. In Barboursville, such activities include single-family homes, schools, churches and libraries — but not strip mines.

David McNees, General Shale's director of environment and corporate real estate, said Wednesday that he wasn't sure what the company would do next.

In Barboursville, however, the next step seems clear: Villagers plan a victory party late in the month, and to somehow scrape together enough money to buy the hayfield from General Shale.

"Winning in court, that's not winning the war," Capelle said. "That's a battle. We have to put them in a position where they want to sell us the land."

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© 2005, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.