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Agencies request outside review of property

The state Department of Agriculture owns somewhere around 10,000 acres of land statewide, although no one knows the exact number.

Property records have lapsed into disarray over the years, but the agency is now working with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's office to get them back in order.

The Agriculture Department, along with the West Virginia Conservation Agency, is using Morrisey's office to hire outside lawyers to conduct comprehensive reviews of the agencies' property holdings.

Agriculture Department spokesman Buddy Davidson said it has been "quite some time" - at least a decade - since the department conducted a review of its property records.

"We want to take a new stock of what property the department holds and what interests we have in it," Davidson said. "Some of the properties are well documented, others need research.

"It's basically just a housekeeping function."

Agriculture Department Chief of Staff Chris Ferro said the agency is hiring outside lawyers because it does not have a staff lawyer capable of conducting the review. The Attorney General's Office also does not have a lawyer specializing in real estate law, he said.

Attorneys have until Aug. 19 to bid for the project. Ferro said he would not know how much the review would cost until the bidding process is complete.

The review will be conducted in 22 counties, including Cabell, Braxton, Kanawha and Lincoln.

Ferro said the agency likely will not be able to afford a complete review of its properties this year because of budgetary constraints, but the work should begin shortly after the agency hires an attorney.

The Agriculture Department owns a wide variety of properties, from quarter-acre lots to 3,000-acre parcels. Its farm near the Huttonsville Correctional Facility in Randolph County has 1,500 acres of tillable land, plus a 1,500-acre timber stand.

Ferro said the Agriculture Department could have mineral rights at its properties, which could serve as money-generating opportunities for the agency.

The West Virginia Conservation Agency also is hiring outside attorneys for a two-phase review of property near its 170 flood control dams statewide.

Lawyers will first focus on the Potomac Valley Conservation District near Romney, where the majority of the state's dams are located, agency spokesman Andrew Stacy said. He said the project's second phase would cover dams elsewhere in the state.

Conservation Agency executive director Brian Farkas told lawmakers late last month his agency often has no idea where easements for the dams are located, where they begin or end.

He said homes and businesses have been built in some easements, however, so the state eventually might have to purchase those properties.

Stacy said some structures are built at the base of dams or in "auxiliary spillways," areas designed to flood when a dam pool reaches its capacity.

The Attorney General's Office adopted a new policy for hiring outside counsel earlier this year, instituting a bidding system similar to the process used when the state hires other contractors.

Agencies must request outside counsel through the Attorney General's Office, which then approves or denies the request. If the attorney general determines hiring outside attorneys is in the state's best interest, the office issues a "request for proposal" to begin the bidding process.

After the bidding period has closed, the Attorney General's Office works with the state agency in question to pick a lawyer based on a set list of criteria. That includes the law practices' skills, ethics issues, reputation among their peers, as well as fees, costs and expenses.

The Attorney General's Office determined the Agriculture Department and the state Conservation Agency could hire outside lawyers because the work will request expertise in real estate law, a large time commitment and extensive travel around the state.

"It is not feasible or cost-effective for the Office of the Attorney General to provide the requested legal services," chief counsel Dan Greear wrote in an order earlier this month.

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ZackHarold.


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