16 March 2017
Two Fluvanna households are holding out against attempts by the James River Water Authority (JRWA) to take easements through their land for a water pipeline.
George Bialkowski, Jr., is opposing the JRWA on behalf of himself and his father, George Bialkowski, Sr.
Barbara Seay, who declined to be interviewed, has also not reached an agreement with the JRWA.
Both Bialkowski and Seay were vocal opponents of the JRWA project’s location when it came to a head last winter. They live at Point of Fork, in the path of the approved but unbuilt pipeline.
The JRWA project consists of a water intake facility on the Point of Fork where the James and Rivanna Rivers meet near Columbia, and a raw water pipeline stretching a little over a mile to Route 6.
From that point, the Louisa County Water Authority will construct its own pipeline at its own expense to funnel water northwest through Fluvanna to Louisa County. Louisa has promised to have 400,000 gallons of treated water at Zion Crossroads for Fluvanna’s use by the end of 2018.
The JRWA project will cost between $8 million and $10 million and will be split evenly between Fluvanna and Louisa.
But things could get sticky if Bialkowski and Seay don’t change their minds about letting the JRWA use their land.
The JRWA wants to run its pipeline through a section of the Bialkowskis’ 72 acres, Bialkowski said. The organization also wants “daily use” of a private drive that separates the Bialkowski and Seay property.
Bialkowski said the JRWA isn’t the first easement to cross his property.
“I have a swath right now through the land that’s the width of a football field,” he said. “We have Colonial Pipeline and the Virginia Power easement right beside it. It’s close to 100 yards. It’s ridiculous how wide it is.”
Bialkowski said the JRWA initially claimed the pipeline would run through existing easements.
“At the very first meeting they held in Kents Store, the very first question I asked was specifically how much woods were they going to take?” he said. “And they always said they were using existing easements. It wasn’t till very recently that they came back and said Virginia Power had a new policy in place and they were not able to use that easement. That’s very upsetting because right from the word ‘go’ that was my first question, and they said none.”
Bialkowski locked up the road between his property and the Seays so as to restrict utility access. The ensuing conversation with Virginia Power was what “brought them to the table” to negotiate with the JRWA, he said. Ultimately, Virginia Power allowed the JRWA to go 10 feet within its easement, he said – a concession that Bialkowski said was “without a doubt” because of his efforts.
But the real issue, said Bialkowski, is the fact that the JRWA has not yet received all its permits for the project.
“If the JRWA had all their permits, we would have no problem,” he said. “But why would they want to purchase a right-of-way when they’re not even completely sure they can put it there? Our contention is basically that as soon as that’s finished we’d be more than happy to deal with them.”
Three permits are required for the project, said County Administrator Steve Nichols. The JRWA already has its permit in place from the Department of Environmental Quality. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission permit is ready to go as well. “Final issuance is contingent on getting the easements,” Nichols said.
But the permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) is taking longer. “That permit is much more complicated – not from a necessarily technical point of view, but from maybe a more emotional point of view,” Nichols said. “It deals with lands and wetlands disturbances and historic artifacts. There’s a fair amount of work that has to be done with that.”
Long ago the Point of Fork was called Rassawek by members of the Monacan Nation. Several Fluvanna residents have publicly stated the belief that Native American artifacts are present throughout Point of Fork.
“There’s no question in my mind that artifacts are going to be down there,” said Bialkowski. “I’m very curious as to how this would affect everything. Why would we want to settle on something that they’re not even sure they can do?”
Steven Vanderploeg, a USACE environmental scientist and the reviewer for the JRWA permit, said that his office is working through a “very in-depth process” to make sure that all the necessary protocols are met.
“If there are historical issues found, then certain protocols are set up to make sure that if historical resources are there, they’re taken care of,” he said. A consultant will conduct an archaeology study in conjunction with USACE and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and “when that’s completed they make recommendations off of that,” he said.
The study has not yet taken place, Vanderploeg said. The decision whether to grant a permit is “completely dependent” on the historic review, he said.
It is possible that the JRWA will not receive its USACE permit.
“Without knowledge of what is there and how the project will impact the historic resources, I can’t say” whether the permit will be issued, Vanderploeg said.
ialkowski declined to say how much money the JRWA has offered in exchange for the easement. But “if this is any indication,” he said, the JRWA offered him $200 for permanent use of the road between his property and the Seays. “They’ve offered $200 for the use of a road that is practically a mile long. You can understand why we’re a little hesitant about that.”
But, he said, “It’s not about the money at all.”
If the JRWA can’t come to an agreement with the Bialkowskis and Seays, they will end up in court, Nichols said. That’s what happens “if you want an easement and you have the legal authority to take an easement through eminent domain. The price ends up being settled either in mediation or in court. It’s too early to tell which way it will go.”
The JRWA needs property or easements from four private owners, not including public companies such as Virginia Power, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative and railroads, Nichols said.
Two of those property owners are cooperating with the JRWA, he said. “We’ve already purchased property for where the pump station will go, from Dr. [William] Hammond,” Nichols said. The JRWA has also purchased an easement from a property owner across the river.
“It’s not that [the Bialkowskis and Seays] aren’t cooperating – we just haven’t come to an agreement,” said Nichols. “They want to make sure we’re not infringing too much on the land – things that owners should be concerned about.”
“We’re not going to stop anything if they get all their permits approved,” Bialkowski said. “But I definitely want to say that it’s out of duress, not that I approve of it. We feel that our county officials and the JRWA have really let the property owners down in this entire ordeal. I’ve really lost a lot of faith in the JRWA, that they actually would do what they said they’re going to do.”
Nichols said the JRWA wants to work with the Bialkowskis and Seays. “I’m completely supportive of them,” he said. “Any time a big project is done, you always look in the mirror and say, ‘Shoot, we could have done some things better.’ We always try to learn and meet needs because it’s their properties and their rights. They’ve been a delight to work with even though we disagree on a bunch of stuff.”
So far the delay hasn’t affected the projected timeline for completion of the water project. “Big projects are never without pitfalls – there’s always something that comes up,” Nichols said. “As it stands now, I think we’re still on reasonable track.”