Franklin Co. homeowners seek answers on proposed refuge - WSMV News 4

Franklin Co. homeowners seek answers on proposed refuge

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Hundreds of homeowners in Winchester are afraid the government will use imminent domain to take their land for a wildlife refuge that's being considered for the area.

There are thousands of pristine acres in the Paint Rock River area of Franklin County. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to keep it that way, so it is proposing a national wildlife refuge it says would safeguard the watershed for hunting, fishing, bird watching and other recreational activities.

But the homeowners whose families settled on the land generations ago are afraid they'll be forced out of their homes, or, if they're allowed to stay, they'll be severely restricted in what they can do with their land.

"You can't cut a tree if you need wood. You can't cut the grass. You really can't do nothing but live there," said homeowner Frank Campbell.

Campbell grew up here, and so did his grandfather. He said local people are good stewards of the land.

"Our forefathers started it, and we're continuing to take care of it the best we can," Campbell said.

Hundreds of people came to a public hearing Tuesday to ask questions about the wildlife refuge.

Their biggest fear is that the federal government could force as many as 150 to 200 homeowners off their land, but the project manager says the Department of Fish and Wildlife doesn't work that way.

"It would be with willing sellers only," said Dwight Cooley, with Fish and Wildlife. "We want to be a good neighbor in the community, and you can't be a good neighbor if you come in and take land."

If the area becomes a refuge the public would still have access to the land, but only in certain places and for certain activities. For example, wildlife photographers would be welcome but not four-wheelers.

"National wildlife areas are areas where assisting wildlife comes first. That's what Congress charged us to do," Cooley said.

Another concern is that if the government buys the land, they would only pay 75 cents per acre in property taxes. That is revenue the county would have to find - about $400,000 a year - from somewhere else.

The government plans to buy about 25,000 acres at first, and the priority is to purchase large tracts of land with river access.

The plan goes to Washington in June.

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