West Virginia Record

Friday, July 19, 2019

Blairton church, residents fear losing water service

By Kelly Holleran | Jan 8, 2009

MARTINSBURG -– Blairton United Methodist Church and 35 Blairton community members have filed suit against two out-of-state corporations, the Berkeley County Public Service District and Berkeley County's assessor, claiming they fear eviction from their properties and a loss of water service if a 1909 lease is not reversed.

An out-of-state company named Van Metre claims it is the sole titleholder to the church's and the 35 community members' properties, according to the complaint filed Dec. 1 in Berkeley Circuit Court.

And if the church and community residents fail to acknowledge Van Metre's position as superior to them, plus if they fail to execute leases prepared by Van Metre and pay the company rent, it has threatened to evict them from their properties, the suit states.

"The terms of the proposed lease agreement by Defendant Van Metre are that the Plaintiffs be required, upon non-renewal or eviction proceedings to move their homes or structures when they vacate the premises, without regard to practicality or cost of relocation," the suit states.

In addition, Van Metre is attempting to eject the Berkeley Public Service District from land Van Metre claims it owns, which would terminate public water service to the homes of the residents and to the church, the plaintiffs allege.

The controversy arose out of Van Metre's claim that it owns 510 acres, which is the same land Blairton residents and the church claim they own in fee simple, according to the complaint.

"Plaintiffs are the true owners of their designated lots of parcels by adverse possession to the exclusion of others," the suit states.

The church has stood at the same site for more than 100 years and all plaintiffs named in the complaint have lived in their homes for more than 10 years, the suit states.

Nevertheless, on Aug. 25, 2005, Van Metre filed a lawsuit in Henrico Circuit Court, a Virginia court, against another out-of-state company – Riverton -- alleging Riverton failed to renew a West Virginia lease on the land in question, breached its covenant to actively mine the leased property as required by the lease and breached other implied covenants in the lease.

Riverton owned a lease to the 510 acres of land, thanks to a July 29, 1976, deed of lease.

The original lease was executed in 1909 and would have to be renewed every 20 years.

Since Riverton failed to renew the lease, the court agreed with Van Metre, and ruled that Riverton was no longer a tenant of the land effective Feb. 1, 2006, according to the complaint.

Before Riverton, multiple people and companies owned the lease, including Blair Limestone, the suit states.

During Blair Limestone's possession of the lease, it laid out a plan of lots to build houses to accommodate its workers, the plaintiffs claim.

Although Blair Limestone did not sell any of the lots, it rented them to workers and to others, according to the complaint.

The combined lots would be known as the company town of Blairton, according to the complaint.

Those are the same homes in which some of the plaintiffs now reside.

However, under West Virginia code, Blair Limestone should not have been allowed to rent lots – only to sell them, the suit states.

Therefore, Blairton residents are asking the court to rule that any rent imposed then and now be declared unenforceable.

That would include the rent Van Metre is attempting to charge Blairton community members.

But Berkeley County Assessor Preston B. Gooden has not assessed the Plaintiffs' real property in their names, which is part of his duty, according to the complaint.

So they are asking the court to issue a writ of mandamus directing Gooden to assess their property as real property.

In another section of West Virginia code, no corporation is allowed to hold more than 100 acres of land, according to the complaint.

The original 1909 acquisition of the 510 acres is in violation of the code, the suit states.

So, the plaintiffs allege the 1909 lease, which is the predecessor to Van Metre's current lease, is void.

Van Metre is also threatening to end the right of way Riverton granted to the Berkeley County Public Service District to supply public water service to residents of Blairton, according to the suit.

If that happens, the residents fear the company will no longer be able to provide water service to them.

"Plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm if their water service is terminated as a consequence of a dispute between Van Metre, Riverton and the Plaintiffs," the suit states.

However, the plaintiffs allege West Virginia public service districts have the power of eminent domain and have an obligation to continue to provide service to existing customers.

In their six-count suit, the Plaintiffs are seeking a writ of mandamus compelling the Berkeley County Public Service District to acquire through their powers of eminent domain the rights of ways and easements necessary to continue their existing public water service or in the alternative to inversely condemn the existing rights of way and water service to provide sufficient damages to the plaintiffs to compensate them for loss of water service.

They are also requesting a preliminary injunction against Van Metre, Riverton and Berkeley County Public Service District enjoining Van Metre and Riverton from ejecting the Berkeley County Public Service District from its Blairton premises and enjoining Berkeley County Public Service District from terminating public water service to the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs requested the court issue a preliminary and permanent injunction in restraining Van Metre and Riverton from instituting ejectment, eviction or unlawful detainer actions against them during the course of the suit.

"Because of Van Metre's usurpation of superior title based on a void judgment, Plaintiffs have been damaged to the extent that they have suffered emotional distress regarding the future of their homes and will suffer future damage as a consequence of Van Metre's clear intent to eject the Plaintiffs from their property and seize their dwelling houses, church and other structures that are permanently attached to the real property," the suit states.

They are requesting the court appoint a commissioner to take testimony, examine documents and take evidence regarding the validity of the leases and assignment, the metes and bounds of the plaintiffs' individual claims of possession and the facts and circumstances that are evidence of the plaintiffs' adverse possession.

They are also requesting Van Metre be charged all the commissioners' fees and expenses and to declare that the 1909 Deed of Lease, if declared valid, to be terminated after its second renewal.

They are seeking the Oct. 24, 2007, Benorico Circuit Court decision not be given full faith and credit in West Virginia courts, that the plaintiffs be found as owners in fee simple by virtue of their adverse possession of their lots, unspecified damages and other relief the court deems just.

If Van Metre does happen to prove that it does own a superior title to the Blairton properties, residents assert the company should be responsible for paving and curbing the streets and roads, for maintaining the streets and roads including drainage, signage and plowing of snow and for installing a water-carried central sewer system connecting the plaintiffs' properties.

And, if Van Metre does prove it owns a superior title, residents feel it has intentions of developing some or all of the property surrounding Blairton.

"Should discovery in this action show that this information is correct, Plaintiffs move the Court under Rule 19 for leave to join the Berkeley County Planning Commission, a corporation, as a party defendant," the suit states. "By joinder of the Berkeley County Planning Comission as a defendant, Plaintiffs will encourage the Commission, under applicable statutes and regulations to require Van Metre to develop a comprehensive land use plan that will provide the benefits to the Blairton Community as stated above, in conjunction with Van Metre's proposed development."

Martinsburg attorney Laura V. Faircloth will be representing them.

Berkeley Circuit Court case number: 08-C-1370

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