Now in its second year, the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic at West Virginia University's College of Law is beginning to hit its stride.
"It's great work," said the clinic's Managing Attorney Nathan Fetty. "It's been really terrific so far."
The clinic was established in its first year by Fetty and has since drawn talent from other states: In July, Katherine Garvey came over from running a similar program at Vermont Law School to direct the WVU program, and in August the clinic attracted Jesse Richardson from Virginia Tech as lead land use attorney.
The purpose of law school clinical programs is to engage students in real-world cases in exchange for academic credit, Fetty explained, while offering clients free legal services. They typically deal with domestic issues or small business development, but this one is different.
"We have law students working with us to render pro bono help on land use issues in West Virginia," he said. "We have one of just a very few land use clinics in the whole country — there are only two or three programs that I know of at other law schools — so for West Virginia, which has had land use challenges for decades, to have a clinic like this is a real benefit, we hope."
The clinic has three areas of focus.
Land trusts and conservation easements
A land trust and conservation easement focus, headed up by Fetty, helps landowners establish voluntary conservation easements to protect property from development that would compromise special values: endangered or threatened species, for example, or scenic views, historical value or water quality.
"We have a number of projects in the pipeline where we're conducting title examinations and assisting with negotiations and otherwise working to conserve sensitive lands," Fetty said. It takes time: "Those are relationships between landowners and land trusts that are basically perpetual so it's not the sort of thing that anybody goes into lightly."
Fetty's part of the clinic also helps with recreational land issues such as access and liability.
"We represented The Access Fund and the New River Alliance of Climbers in their negotiations with a private landowner in the New River Gorge to establish a right-of-way for rock climbers to reach some really terrific climbing areas on public land in the gorge," Fetty said. "We drafted all the legal instruments needed to put that in place."
Land use planning, wastewater
A second clinic focus, on land use planning and the development of local ordinances, is headed by Richardson, an expert in farmland protection and land use planning.
"There are communities that don't know how they're going to make payroll consistently, let alone be in a position to pay a consultant or legal counsel to help them develop a comprehensive land use strategy, so that's where we come in — we offer that expertise and we offer it for free," Fetty said.
Although this part of the program is still in development, Richardson and Garvey met recently with several mayors through the West Virginia Municipal League.
"It seems like there is a lot of interest in comprehensive planning and people are looking for help with it, so it's exciting to know that our help is wanted," Garvey said.
The clinic will hold a series of free comprehensive land use planning workshops in the spring, probably in the Beckley area.
The third focus area, led by Garvey and just getting under way, will help communities with wastewater.
"I've started some work on wastewater issues, trying to figure out how to treat untreated wastewater in West Virginia," she said.
Teaching students, helping organizations
The clinic had four students in the spring, all of whom graduated, and has eight now with the possibility of ramping up to 16 in the spring of 2013.
"The students get into the clinic through a competitive application process, and we are really proud of the work they're doing," Garvey said. "They're out in the actual record rooms and meeting with clients and it seems like it's fun for both the students and our partners to work together."
"I spend the bulk of my days supervising students in record rooms, helping them draft documents, otherwise counseling clients to protect sensitive lands in West Virginia, which is a lot of fun for me," Fetty said.
The funding that established the clinic and will sustain it for its first four years came from settlements of lawsuits against coal companies over Clean Water Act violations.
"We're in an enviable position in that we haven't had to raise money out of the gate in order to do our work," Fetty said. "Hopefully we'll establish a successful track record and that will be worthy of funding from other sources as this funding comes to an end."
Private landowners, citizen volunteers, nonprofit organizations and local governments that need help with land and water conservation are among those the clinic can help, Fetty said.
One of the clinic's mandates is to serve southern West Virginia so, while its services are offered to all West Virginians, projects in the Elk, New, Gauley and Kanawha River watersheds take some priority.
Learn more about the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic online.