Controversy (?!) Over Access to Cheat Lake

By Dave Saville

Morgantown area residents are fortunate to have a wonderful recreational resource such as Cheat Lake near by. But, over the years the lake has slowly grown out of reach to average citizens as access has dwindled. Used to be you drove down by the bridge, parked your car and jumped in. Or, there were the famous "backwaters" where you could go swimming, or you could hike to Quarry Run, past Mt. Chateau and enjoy the cool water there. Slowly these access points have all been closed to the public. Governor Moore sold off the Mt Chateau land to a developer, the local residents of the upscale developments didn't like the riff-raff hanging out at the bridge so they had it posted, same fate for the backwaters. Now, the lake is the private property of those who can afford a lot in one of the most expensive housing developments in the state, or those who own a boat and rent dock space at one of the marinas. We peasants couldnít just go to Cheat Lake any more. It was off limits.

In comes FERC. That's the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. You see, Cheat Lake is part of Allegheny Powers (AP) hydrogenerating network. They are licensed by FERC. Renewal time came along and AP learned they had to develop recreational facilities at the lake, and provide public access, to get their license renewed. This started a several year study including town meetings, local input, hearings, comment periods, etc, until AP came up with a plan acceptable to everyone. The plan included picnic areas, nature viewing areas, and a beautiful 4.5 mile rail-trail at lake level.

Everybody was happy.

That is, until the wealthy residents of Greystone estates near by the lake realized what had happened. The planned trail goes in between their mansions and the lakefront. These nearby residents have obtained special use permits from AP to cross APís land and build boat docks on the lake. The "cart paths" they have constructed cross the rail-trail on the way to their docks. Make no mistake about it, this is APís land Ė Greystone residents have no title to it, simply a right of way to access the lake.

These folks would like to keep the lakefront to themselves, even though they don't own it. They have tried every trick in the book to keep this trail from being built. They have several times appealed to FERC, which has ruled against them every time. One of the residents has even called trail proponents "selfish." If that isn't the epitome of hypocrisy, I don't know what is. They have infiltrated the local organization, Cheat Lake Environmental and Recreation Association (CLEAR), who were the original advocates of the trail, forcing trail proponents to form another group, Friends of the Cheat Lake Trail (FOCLT).

As Co-President of FOCLT, I have waged a mostly cyber campaign to keep the trail in the plan and see to its construction. We in FOCLT have shown a willingness to compromise, and have even suggested alternatives which might be used to down size the Cheat Lake Trail and provide additional access to the Lake. None of this seems to satisfy those who would like to keep the lake to themselves. They vow to get an injunction to keep trail construction from getting underway.

Some of the reasons why they are not justified in their opposition;

1) The adjacent property owners had more than adequate opportunity to participate in the process through the numerous public meetings and planning sessions held by both Allegheny Power and the CLEAR over the last 4 years.

2) The trail does not unlawfully evict them from their legally acquired right of way. The property is owned by Allegheny Power.

3) Article 18 of the project license requires the licensee, Allegheny Power, to allow free public access to project lands and waters for outdoor recreational purposes. It states "neither adjacent property owners, nor any other group, shall have the ability to restrict or limit, public access to recreational lands and facilities at federally licensed projects." Since the trail is owned by Allegheny Power, and not Greystone property owners, removal of the trail from the project is unlawful. Not building the trail would essentially turn over these lands to the landowners for their exclusive use.

4) The public safety, liability, and reduced property value claims by the residents are wholly unfounded. No evidence has been submitted by the residents that support this contention. In fact, the research clearly shows that these lands become safer and liability decreases when they are managed. Hiking/biking trails are among the most secure, crime free areas in a community. Fear of vandalism or trespass alone is not a basis for stopping a rail trail project. If it were, none of the thousands of miles of trails around the country would have been established. In terms of property values, most studies show that values increase or stay the same when trails are constructed.

5) The trail as currently approved also provides the only access to the Allegheny Power Wildlife Habitat and Nature Viewing Area. Without this access, this area will become a private park used exclusively by those who live in the Greystone development.

6) This trail does not, as claimed in many of the homeowner letters, go "through" the backyards of these residents. This is Allegheny Power property down to the lake, and is not the property of the residents. Distance, elevation gain, and maintaining vegetation will provide a level of privacy to the extent that in most cases you cannot even see the houses from the trail. Ironically, several residents have reduced this privacy by cutting trees and vegetation and by carrying out landscaping on Allegheny Power Property. In essence, they have mingled Allegheny Power property with their own, an infringement of not only the company's property rights, but also the publicís right of access to public lands. In a recent real estate industry survey, new home buyers ranked "proximity to hiking and biking trails" #3 among 39 features they were willing to pay extra for. Just behind "access to open space." Seems to me the folks at Cheat Lake should appreciate the increase in property values they will realize as a result of the proposed recreational facilities in the area, especially so since "proximity to tennis courts and golf courses," which had been high on the lists in the past, dropped to 28th and 29th, respectively. _