Go Take a Swim

Jerry, Curly and Moe' invite the National Park Service to a Swimming Party

According to one resident, a county native, “Highland needs an Olympic swimming pool like I need another hole in my head.”

Another disgruntled taxpayer concluded, “With Jerry, Curly and Moe running the county, Jerry will probably build a hotel and convention center next to his pool. And he’ll heat it with electricity from a windmill.”

These have been typical of comments from many people living far from the county’s “Department of Yearly Tax Hikes.” For them, there has been an obvious “disconnect” between county supervisors and the real world of Highland, where farmers, wage earners, small businesses and the elderly living on fixed incomes are becoming increasingly upset with what they believe is a lack of common sense in county government and an official attitude of arrogance, “to hell with what the people think.”

One McDowell lady asked, “Who’s going to use this pool? Who’s going to pay for costly maintenance and lifeguards and other personnel? People come here to visit, vacation…for peace and quiet at weekend homes. They want to get away from things, not compete with screaming kids in a chlorinated, chemical laden-bathtub. Most residents don’t have the time or money for this. How many kids and adults in the county will even use it during the few months it’s open, especially if there are fees? We’ve got plenty of secluded streams and ponds where people can take a private dip, and it doesn’t cost a penny.”

Others have voiced suspicions about what they see as the real reasons for pushing the project. “It’s intended to attract wealthy retired people to the county,” according to a Head Waters area man. “It’s for the benefit of a building contractor and a real estate agent, both sitting on the Board of Supervisors.”

National Park Service administered “grant”—“strings” attached

But even if that is true, as bad as it may be, it’s only half of the story. What county residents and taxpayers are not being told is the recreation complex/swimming pool would encumber county citizens with a substantial burden, in perpetuity—forever. The extent of the burden is an unknown.

The current plan for the facility hinges on a recently approved $110,000 “grant,”—federally administered by the National Park Service and funded through Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

And there are “strings” attached. Plenty of them.

From several years of public statements, it is clear one supervisor, Chairman Jerry Rexrode, has been the driving force pushing the recreation facilities project forward without the informed support and consent of most county residents.

In August, 2005, Supervisor Lee Blagg was presented with specific information about the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act, in particular Section 6(f)(3) of the Act which provides:

No property acquired or developed with assistance under this section shall, without the approval of the Secretary [NPS/Department of Interior], be converted to other than public outdoor recreation uses. The Secretary shall approve such conversion only if he finds it to be in accord with the then existing comprehensive statewide outdoor recreation plan and only upon such conditions as he deems necessary to assure the substitution of other recreation properties of at least equal fair market value and of reasonably equivalent usefulness and location.

In simple terms, if the LWCF “grant” is accepted, the citizens and taxpayers of the county will be required to use the land for recreation, and nothing else, forever. If, at some future date, due to unforeseen or changed circumstances, the land is needed for another purpose, the county would be required to seek approval from the Secretary of the US Department of Interior. And even if the Secretary would approve a change in the use of the land, county taxpayers would be required to “mitigate” the change by purchasing or substituting an equal and equivalent tract to be used for the same recreational purposes. In other words, the people of Highland would be “locked in” and would be required to pay for any changes.

The National Park Service also requires on-site inspections of all grant-assisted areas and facilities at least once in every five years. These inspections are done to assure the facilities are being used and maintained according to NPS standards. If standards are not met, the county would be forced to meet them, whether the county taxpayers could afford it or not.

In an August telephone conversation with Synthia Waymack, Grants Administrator, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), it was made clear DCR Grant Manual 199110 specifies as follows: “All recipients of grant funds for acquisition and/or development projects will be required to maintain and operate the funded area in perpetuity for outdoor recreation use.” (Emphasis in the original)

While the county may hold nominal title to the property, its use would be mandated and administered by the National Park Service. The NPS would become an effective “co-owner” of the property with recorded deed restrictions. By signing a “Project Agreement,” the county would be locked into a perpetual contractual agreement with the NPS and DCR—federal control of another tract of county land.

Supervisor Lee Blagg, who made a point of protesting the swimming pool project during his election campaign, has gone right along with the “program.” Why has he not taken the above facts, presented to him in August, and in turn presented them to the public? Do the people of Highland deserve to understand the NPS mandates and conditions? Or is it official policy to purposely keep people in the dark?

On August 9th, Mr. Blagg stated to this writer he was not aware funds for the proposed “grant” were federal. He also stated he was not aware the NPS administered the “grant” or of the perpetual nature of the county’s agreement. Yet he voted in favor of a Resolution which clearly acknowledges the federal funding source and commits the citizens of the county to meet all the federal and state “guidelines.” Did Mr. Blagg read the County Resolution he voted for? Or was he told everything was OK and that he should just vote in favor of it because it was “a good deal?”

But there is even better news…

The supervisors, by Resolution of April 5, 2005, committed the county to pursuing what they term the “urgent needs within Highland County to develop park land and construct the Highland Pool.” In the Highland Pool Project Grant Application, April 29, 2005, the Supervisors state:

…there are no local public recreational facilities offering swimming, hiking, jogging, walking and biking path, softball, baseball, tennis, basketball, soccer and track facilities in proximity to the Town of Monterey, the County seat…Highland’s entire K-12 school complex uses a small playground and informal ball field—this is it. [The Stonewall Ruritan Club would likely take issue with this misleading statement.]

Few creeks, if any, provide a swimming source in Highland County…and even the rivers are only knee deep…key public services must be provided…and an aquatic therapy through the Highland Medical Center must be offered. (Emphasis added)

Under Section 8 of the Grant Application, Alternatives to the Proposed Action, the supervisors further state:

Perhaps the biggest alternative would be to do nothing—no Park, no Pool. Since the inception of this Project, this has simply not been an alternative…Simply put, a decision not to build a new public pool would leave no man made nor natural swimming opportunities in Highland County. This is unacceptable. (Emphasis added)

Highland County residents should be asking their Supervisors what their basis is for determining the swimming pool and recreation complex is an “urgent need.” Was the approval of a commercial wind power project and “urgent need?” Are pending legal actions against the county an “urgent need?” Is tax relief for county property owners an “urgent need?” Many residents feel the most urgent need is for fiscal responsibility and accountability to voters and taxpayers.

As of mid-August, 2005:

It is interesting to note Paragraph 7 of the Application for Federal Assistance. Chairman Rexrode, who signed the Application, certifies he:

Will establish safeguards to prohibit employees from using their positions for a purpose that constitutes or presents the appearance of personal or organizational conflict of interest, or personal gain.

There are 19 paragraphs (two pages) of Assurances of compliance with numerous federal statutes and regulations. The county would be held to these Assurances. What are the potential long-term costs of this commitment? Economically and practically?

The total capital investment for the park, roads and pool recreation complex, local and federal, is estimated to be $1,285,199 when completed. To say there will not be cost over-runs would be wishful thinking. Because the lion’s share of the costs is from federal funds, Highlanders do not seem to be aware of the size of the project or the importance of potential liabilities.

The people of the county should not allow this project to get final approval without some concrete answers to these and many more questions. Recent interviews with numerous residents of the Stonewall District, conducted in preparation for the revision of the county Comprehensive Plan, overwhelmingly indicate disapproval of this plan. There are alternatives. It seems the Supervisors, under Mr. Rexrode’s leadership, are unwilling to seriously consider the alternatives or the advice of citizens.