Near the northeastern tip of Randolph County lies a hot bed of ecological rarities. Waterfalls, underground caves and endangered species call the area home. Nearly 2,000 acres of this land in the Allegheny Highlands has been purchased and plans for the future includes win-win situations for developers and conservationists.
When Thunderstruck, an Owings Mills, Md.-based company, bought the land from MeadWestvaco in 2007, a new concept in environmental preservation arrived in West Virginia. Thunderstruck's full scope of activity is to incorporate residential development, a habitat conservation bank, conservation easement sales, land sales and timber sales.
"Thunderstruck is a mixed use project that combines utilizing new environmental economic mechanisms with limited construction development," Thunderstruck LLC owner Dixon Harvey said. "Thunderstruck is establishing West Virginia as a leader in the eastern United States in these environmental mechanisms."
According to Thunderstruck's Web site, www.thunderstruckllc.com, the conservation effort hopes to utilize the land for habitat preservation and conservation banks that will save and restore habitats for several endangered species. The West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel, the Cheat Mountain Salamander, the Northern Saw-Whet owl, White Monkshood, Running Buffalo Clover and various rare cave species are among the unique finds receiving help.
One of the first steps in the project was a conservation easement that was purchased by the West Virginia Nature Conservancy to protect 272 acres.
"By us selling the easement two things were accomplished: the ecosystem is preserved and it helps keep a project like Corridor H moving," Harvey said.
About the property
Significant portions of northeastern Randolph County were heavily logged in the 1800s and more recently a ski resort developer showed interest in the now conservation-protected property. The Thunderstruck Conservation Web site, www.thunderstruckllc.com, states the area is above 3,600 feet in elevation and is ideal for restoring and expanding habitat back to a mixed hardwood forest.
Four concepts of Thunderstruck drummed up the support of the Randolph County Development Authority Wednesday after RCDA Executive Director Jennifer Giovannitti briefed board members on the company's goals.
On March 31, Giovannitti and members of the Executive Committee received an hour-long presentation from Harvey, Garrett Giusti, also of Thunderstruck, and Rodney Bartgis, state director for The Nature Conservancy.
The RCDA voted to write a letter of support to Thunderstruck for four of it concepts. The group supports Thunderstruck in its efforts to purchase sensitive land and setting aside that land for long-term conservation; to develop a partnership with The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; increase the previous tax base to the county; and offer a new tool in the form of mitigation credits to developments impacting qualifying species or habitats.
"It seems to be a creative way to achieve a couple of goals," Giovannitti said. "I think this is one of the most creative and practical things I've seen in awhile. It would be the only tradable credit land for endangered species on the East Coast outside one in North Carolina."
Harvey explained that when projects disturb threatened or endangered specie environments, they must replace the lost habitat. One of the ways is to purchase credits from projects such as Thunderstruck. The easement for The Nature Conservancy was purchased through funds set aside from Corridor H.
In coordination with The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Thunderstruck Conservation is establishing a 600-acre habitat conservation bank for the management and permanent protection of a habitat for the Cheat Mountain Salamander and the West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel.
The mitigation credits may only be used for projects in West Virginia, but can be traded for highway, wind turbines and coal mining development, Giovannitti told the RCDA board. She said the cost per credit has not been determined, however, current estimates are around $10,000 per acre.
"This is already commonly done and most recognized in the example of wetland mitigation," Giovannitti said. "A person impacts an existing wetland and offsets that impact by adding wetland habitat somewhere else."
Some RCDA members agreed that the mitigation option on the acreage owned by Thunderstruck could have a positive effect on the construction of Corridor H.
"This is one of the few things that make sense as far as getting it (Corridor H) done," said RCDA member Jim Schoonover.
Giovannitti explained that programs similar to Thunderstruck in southern California have prevented some "legal stalemates" with development and progress versus environmental protection.
Although most of the land purchased by Thunderstruck will be used for conservation, some people will be able to live near the rare species.
A housing development, which will include up to 28 lots, is planned for an area of less than 4 percent of the total acreage. The small conservation development will be surrounded by approximately 1,900 acres of permanently preserved land and will be integrated with the protection and restoration of ecosystem resources. The environmentally sensitive conservation development area for homes will help finance Thunderstruck's overall preservation efforts, according to its Web site.
"We are moving ahead with the infrastructure and getting a couple of the lots ready," Harvey said. "We hope by summer we will be able to show the lots."
Randolph County's tax base could receive a boost in part due to the development planned for a portion of the acreage. Up to 28 homes could be built on the 188 acres reserved for the residential area, according to Thunderstruck documents.
Home construction could also generate jobs and add to the tax base, according to Thunderstruck, which estimates an annual property tax revenue increase from $4,000 to $60,000.