West Virginia University’s College of Law has created a new clinic but its mission touches on themes as old as the school’s 19th century land-grant charter.
In establishing the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic, the College of Law will provide legal assistance to land-owners, land trusts and county and municipal governments to protect local land and water.
For the past 35 years, students in WVU’s law clinics have helped individuals and families with free legal services and advice. The new clinic will have a far-reaching impact for thousands of state citizens, which matches the missions of both WVU and the college, according to College of Law Dean Joyce McConnell.
“This is completely new ground but, in terms of outreach and service to the state, it’s aligned with our long-standing mission to help West Virginians,” McConnell said. “There’s a tremendous need in West Virginia, among local and city governments, county commissions and regional authorities, non-profit organizations and land owners for legal advice on land use and water protection.”
In its first semester of existence, four students will give legal assistance such as drafting conservation easements or local land use plans and ordinances but will not be involved in litigation. Conservation easements are legal instruments that allow land holders to protect their property in perpetuity by restricting development.
The students will work with licensed lawyers and under the supervision of Nathan Fetty, a 2005 law school alumnus who is managing attorney for the clinic.
The initial focus will be on the New and Gauley river watersheds although the clinic will provide help throughout the state.
“What makes this land use clinic especially compelling for WVU students is that there are so few like it across the country,” Fetty said. “It’s a great opportunity and a unique challenge for students to learn about land protection and water quality issues and it will be a great asset to the communities we serve.”
The clinic is funded by millions of dollars in legal settlements between environmental groups and coal companies. It will work closely with the West Virginia Land Trust, which will receive about $4.5 million in settlement money. That money would typically end up in the hands of the federal government but the litigants decided to use it to create a “supplemental environmental project,” or SEP, which established the clinic.
James Van Nostrand, director of WVU’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, said few law schools have clinics like WVU’s because of funding issues.
“I think we’ll be a good resource for the state,” he said. “There’s a huge demand for these types of services. Most cities and towns don’t have the resources to hire someone to help them figure out these kinds of issues.”
The clinic will be temporarily housed in Morgantown’s Seneca Center until the law school’s $24 million expansion project occurs. The clinic is looking to hire a professional planner and administrative support in the next few months and long-range plans are to hire more lawyers and staff to oversee more students and tackle more projects.
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CONTACT: James Van Nostrand, WVU College of Law