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Working in service: WVU land use attorneys address fundamental needs of West Virginia communities

Low-laying clouds and dog sit between rolling green West Virginia mountains

The WVU Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic is improving the quality of life for West Virginians across the Mountain State by contributing much-needed local government legal services to communities, while also providing meaningful educational opportunities for law students. (WVU Photo)

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(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of news releases highlighting ways WVU is serving the Mountain State. Access photos, video and additional resources in a Media Toolkit from WVUToday.)

West Virginia University is using its resources, including engaged students, faculty and staff, to help address basic needs in West Virginia communities. That includes support for decision-making on land and water conservation, mine reclamation, broadband internet access, dilapidated building issues and flood recovery, answering the University’s land-grant mission.

One example is the WVU Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic, based in the College of Law, which is improving the quality of life for West Virginians across the state by contributing much-needed local government legal services to communities, while also providing meaningful educational opportunities for law students.

LULC celebrated its 10th anniversary in December, marking a milestone for the clinic which has helped more than 1,000 communities in nearly every county of West Virginia.

“Our clinic is unique in the United States. A lot of legal clinics represent individual clients that are low income, and there are a lot of clinics that do that at the College of Law,” said Katherine Garvey, LULC director and teaching associate professor. “But our clinic represents a lot of smaller governments, and so, just over the past 10 years, we’ve worked with so many across the state, from Thurmond, which has a population of around five, to Morgantown and everywhere in between.”

Garvey heads a team of up to 12 third-year law students who put in 20 hours per week, as well as seven attorneys, a certified land use planner and a fellow. Together, this dedicated team works with government and nonprofit organizations across the state.

The funds to start the clinic originated when coal companies were found to have violated the Clean Water Act, and while the penalty money would typically go to the United States Treasury, a supplemental environmental project was included as part of a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. The College of Law dean at the time negotiated with the attorneys for the plaintiffs to use that money to start the LULC.

“They had a good vision for some of the needs in West Virginia — if we’re trying to remedy harm related to water quality, what could be most helpful? They identified land conservation, so partnerships with the land trust,” Garvey said. “Then planning, supporting local governments with long-term planning projects, and then trying to address straight piping, a PVC pipe that goes directly from the toilet to the river, which happens in a lot of places throughout the state.”

The clinic continued to grow from its original concept, including an expansion into flood recovery efforts, which was especially critical following the 2016 flood in the southern part of the state. The LULC worked on long-term recovery efforts such as floodplain management and zoning, and other legal services in Alderson, Richwood, Hundred, Clendenin and White Sulphur Springs.

The educational opportunities for students at the LULC helped shape the future for 2020 College of Law graduate Logan Mantz from Romney, now an attorney at Capon Bridge Legal in Hampshire County. Mantz knew he wanted to help local communities after spending countless hours driving to different Mountain State municipalities.

“At a lot of places across the state, that capacity has been deteriorated because we don’t necessarily have resources to keep people trained up and filling in the new spots,” Mantz said. “We’ve noticed that a lot of local governments in the state have lost a lot of their institutional capacity over the past several decades.”

One of the biggest issues the clinic tries to address is dilapidated buildings. As many as one in 16 properties in West Virginia are vacant or abandoned, which causes safety concerns, decreases property values and can demoralize community spirit.

Romney, located near Capon Bridge, has similar issues. While Mantz was involved with the LULC, he had an opportunity to work in his home county.

“The Land Use Clinic helped the Town of Romney update its comprehensive plan, and during the process, identified the need to work on literal community cleanup efforts,” he said. “The town had widespread issues with trash, indoor furniture left outdoors, junk cars, etc., and needed to start addressing vacant and dilapidated structures. These issues are all related as they affect community well-being, public safety and economic development in similar ways.”

Romney created and implemented a Vacant Structure Registry. It then used the fees from the registry to fund a free community cleanup day in which it offered citizens free bulk trash pickup. This was done at the beginning of the town’s implementation of its new nuisance ordinance to help citizens with access to free trash collection before any tickets were written under the new ordinance.

“It went well and had a lot of community participation. It’s incremental progress, but it’s definitely a success,” Mantz said.

Westley Carpenter, a current member of the LULC from Sutton, tells a similar story about work being done near his hometown.

“The majority of this venture was a bit before my time, but I got to touch base with many of the folks in the Town of Gassaway about their dilapidated building ordinances and they were very appreciative. The project hit close to home, literally and figuratively,” Carpenter said.

“Communities often become overwhelmed, not really knowing how to tackle the problem, and being able to give them the tools to address the issue before it gets out of hand is very rewarding. It was awesome to see Gassaway take that step forward, and very cool to see the benefits that the clinic brought to my area.”

Carpenter said work is currently being done in Fayetteville, Thomas, Lewisburg and Bluefield, among others.

The LULC has also partnered with the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, John Chambers College of Business and Economics and WVU Extension on a number of projects, providing more opportunities for students, while also using different areas of expertise to help West Virginia communities.

Additionally, the University is working to reclaim thousands of acres of abandoned mining land as part of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s “Build Back Better Regional Challenge Grant.” In areas previously reliant on coal, the “Former Mine Lands to Sustainable Lands” program’s goal is to use those sites for solar, wind or geothermal generation, energy storage, agro-forestry, healthy food production, eco-tourism and outdoor recreation.

Groups involved from WVU include the LULC, the Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development CollaborativeEnergy InstituteNatural Resource Analysis Center, Office of Student and Faculty Innovation, Mountain Hydrology Lab, Start Up WV, Chambers College and the BRIDGE Initiative.

Read more about how WVU serves West Virginia.



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