Neighbors say FOIA documents highlight concerns about spring development

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AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) — Earlier this month, we reported on Seawright Springs in Augusta County and the concerns neighbors had about the plans to draw water from the springs.

The neighbors requested information from the county through the Freedom of Information Act, and they shared that information with us. Neighbors still don't believe their concerns about the project have been addressed.

On April 30, Governor Ralph Northam announced that Flow Alkaline Spring Water had purchased the springs and was planning to open their first manufacturing facility in the United States.

"No one in our group is opposed to economic development. Let's be clear about that," Shaun Mooney, who lives near the springs, said. "Our group is opposed to a project that we believe is not the right fit for our area."

Mooney said they're also opposed to the way they say the process has been handled. Mooney said they don't feel like their concerns have been heard, and they're upset with the lack of transparency.

"Instead of responding to citizens and addressing concerns of residents in our area," Mooney said, "they actively worked against us to push this project through in an even faster manner."

The residents said the emails they received through the FOIA request show the county, company and state ignored their concerns and cared more about the perception of the project.

"Instead of responding to us in a real and meaningful way," Mooney said, "it was more about public relations and perception of the project."

FOIA documents show there were several occasions where keeping information from the media and public was discussed. For instance, one email reads if "newspaper reports and interest in the project gain momentum without final governor approval, the discretionary incentives will be forfeited."

"The state effectively told county officials that if there was further attention or public inquiry," Mooney said, "they would pull that grant, and that's heavy handed."

Gerald Garber, chair of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors, said he knows neighbors want their concerns to be heard. He said per the state, they couldn't speak about the project.

"I can tell you they're being heard, because otherwise I wouldn't have driven out there personally four or five times and taken pictures." Garber said. "They're being heard."

Garber said the project all comes down to one point.

"And it came down to, could they do it by right once they owned the land and could they do what the last landowner did," Garber said. "That's really the only point that is a sticky point, and we now have in writing that what they propose to do is what the last person did."

We reached out to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership several times for this story. On Wednesday, they sent us a statement about the project and why it was carried out behind closed doors.

"For competitive reasons and to protect proprietary company information, it is standard practice to keep details of economic development prospects confidential until the time of announcement. That said, VEDP confirms local support of potential projects with local officials prior to making state incentive offers."