A camp for special-needs children is bracing for the start of construction of the new Ragged Mountain dam. Camp leaders have long expected disruptions to camp programming and to their use of Reservoir Road.
However, years of negotiations with the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority have ended with the camp feeling short-changed and apprehensive about its future.
Tina LaRoche has been the executive director at Camp Holiday Trails since 2004. She participated in the negotiations with the RWSA during 2009-2011 that sought to address the water authority’s land acquisition and easement needs for the new dam.
Tina LaRoche, Executive Director, Camp Holiday Trails
“We don’t feel like we have been fairly compensated because we will have to cancel a therapeutic riding program for a minimum of two summers,” LaRoche said. “There is no compensation for that. It’s up to us to figure out what to do and how to pay for that dramatic program change.”
“Then there are just the inconveniences of traveling a road with construction vehicles, and of working with the constant hum of construction,” LaRoche added. “There are also the unknowns — the impacts of dust and noise on our programming, on our kids.”
Camp Holiday Trails will receive a $35,300 payment from the RWSA for the purchase of about half an acre near the base of the new dam and a spillway drainage easement on another half-acre. The payment also covers the costs of legal fees and an appraisal.
Last October, initial proposals from camp officials to the RWSA included over $800,000 for new buildings and compensation. The camp’s meeting notes show the RWSA responded with shock. The RWSA reminded the nonprofit that the authority had the power of eminent domain and that it could not “overcompensate.”
The RWSA’s executive director, Thomas L. Frederick Jr. , was a participant in many of the meetings with the camp.
“It is not uncommon in negotiations regarding property issues that a property owner’s initial idea of what they should be compensated, and RWSA’s understanding of fair value, are often different and they have to be negotiated,” Frederick said.
“The fact that we were open-minded to the process and asked them to put all their concerns down in a written proposal doesn’t necessarily mean that RWSA is going to grant it,” Frederick added. “I think that was communicated.”
On Dec. 17, the Camp Holiday Trails board accepted RWSA’s offer of $35,300. Camp officials ultimately decided to take a bitter pill and said they will focus on coexisting with the dam project and an appeal to its community of supporters to find funding for replacement programs.
Neighbors to a dam
The almost $140 million, 50-year community water supply plan , approved earlier this year with a cost-sharing agreement between the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County, is expected to get under way next month with 21 months of construction to build the new dam.
Access to the camp and the dam site is via Reservoir Road, a sharply winding, mostly gravel, 1.7-mile road that separates the camp from development at the end of Fontaine Avenue. During construction, the Ragged Mountain Natural Area will be closed to the public.
Camp Holiday Trails moved to its current location on about 71 acres between Interstate 64 and the Ragged Mountain Natural Area in 1973. Today, about 60 children with special needs attend the camp each week during the summer.
The camp’s staff and facilities are designed to provide a genuine camping experience to children with diagnoses that include asthma, cancer, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, epilepsy, hemophilia, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. Family camps in the spring and fall extend that opportunity to the families supporting these youth.
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The therapeutic horse-riding program is a major part of the Camp Holiday Trails experience. Because of construction noise, the camp intends to suspend the program for safety reasons.
“We didn’t know what we were going to do without the riding program, and it was RWSA who suggested we welcome the kids back with something better, like a new building,” LaRoche said. “I wish I had thought of that on my own, but I didn’t.”
Camp officials accepted RWSA’s payment for the land, an offer that could have been contested in court, opening the possibility for eminent domain proceedings. They say now that they are disappointed to have not received more.
In 2011, the camp suggested the RWSA pay for building new stables ($100,000), a new office ($250,000) and about $46,500 in other expenses related to staff time, an appraisal, and legal expenses for the negotiations.
Alison Okerlund is president of the camp’s board. She first began volunteering for the organization as a teenager helping with the riding program.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call them negotiations,” Okerlund said. “Over the meetings I was involved in, we were led to believe we were providing information on impacts to the camp and the kids’ experience. When we provided the information, they asked why we did it. It was kind of shocking.”
Okerlund was referring to a consultant’s assessment of the economic impacts. Valuation One LLC concluded the termination of the riding program alone could cost the camp $242,000 over four years. It also estimated rental income losses of $54,000 and the loss of volunteers and campers at $165,000 over the same period.
“It was a disappointing experience,” Okerlund added. “We thought we were being treated fairly and we were trusting them, then it was turned around on us.”
“I thought that what the board offered was a fair deal,” said Albemarle Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd , a member of the RWSA board. “I am sorry to hear that they are unhappy with it, because they accepted it. We gave them more than we originally thought we would have to.”
A changing project
Negotiations began in 2009 when the RWSA was contemplating a concrete dam to replace the Lower Ragged Mountain Dam built in 1908. That approach would have required a concrete plant in the camp’s riding ring.
When the design changed to an earthen dam in May 2010, both sides recognized the impacts on the camp would be much less severe. However, camp officials maintain discussions continued to include new buildings and cash so that the camp facility would be “bigger and better.”
“I do recall discussions about us replacing facilities when we thought we were going to have to remove them,” Frederick responded. “For example, if we needed to remove the stables … then it would have made sense for us to put back stables with at least the same quality as what had been there before.”
“That did change when it was no longer necessary to provide a concrete batch plant,” Frederick said. “However, I can’t speak to what perceptions were there on the other side.”
The camp is feeling more positive about the plans for keeping Reservoir Road a gravel road after the project is completed. New turnouts will also improve the ability of vehicles to pass each other. The dam contractor will maintain the road during construction and staff it with marshals at each end to coordinate traffic.
“The Camp Holiday Trails experience begins at the corner of Fontaine Avenue and Reservoir Road,” LaRoche said. “You’re leaving something behind and you’re coming into something new — this rustic camp experience.”
“It came up numerous times that they wanted the road left in its present condition,” Frederick said. “That was a big preference of theirs and we helped them champion that in the negotiations with Albemarle County.”
LaRoche said her team will “go forward and be strong” during the construction.
“I think we have operated with integrity and honesty and we understand that this was a challenging situation for both the camp and RWSA. We just feel like we were led down the wrong path,” LaRoche said. “But this could have been handled better in terms of our work with this public utility. It could have been handled better.”
“We have to fairly compensate, as best we can determine based on the law,” Frederick concluded. “We also have a responsibility to our rate-payers. Any expenses of the authority have to be justified from the thinking that we’re going to turn around and charge the water users of the community a fee.”