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River groups welcome endangered designation

The Roanoke River Basin Association and the Dan River Basin Association on Monday applauded the designation of Coles Hill and the surrounding area in Pittsylvania County as Preservation Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Rural Landscape. 

The designation was prompted by a threat posed by the proposal to lift Virginia's 30-year ban on uranium mining with the first uranium mine and mill planned at the Coles Hill site.  

The designation also comes after Virginia’s governor took the issue out of the legislature’s hands and established a uranium working  group charged with drafting regulations in secrecy with limited public involvement.   

“This designation is a welcome news for the basin.  Heritage tourism is a significant tax revenue generator for numerous counties and localities throughout the commonwealth.  It would complement Roanoke River Basin Association's Upper Reach program established to encourage water related tourism in the region, including paddling, camping and boating and fishing,” said Gene Addesso, RRBA's vice-president.   

“The southern Virginia community has established an international reputation for the preservation of and access to priceless historical assets, including the Sutherlin Mansion, Berry Hill Plantation and the Callands Courthouse.  This new designation joins a long line of wise choices by Virginians.  This is going to be a plus for our local businesses if we wisely promote it,” said Andrew Lester, RRBA's executive director.

DRBA Executive Director Tiffany Haworth added, “We hope this designation will inspire the region’s citizens to take action to protect Coles Hill and its surroundings.  Working together, we can ensure that this unique asset will be preserved for future generations.”

In making the announcement Monday morning, Preservation Virginia said, “ This picturesque rural landscape played an essential role in the mid-18th century founding of Pittsylvania County during which plantation-based agriculture and local water-powered processing were the principal economic activities. 

“The area has standing structures that span almost every era including a Native American fishing weir, two gristmills built in the 1700s, an assembly of mansions from the Revolutionary War era and the home of J.E.B. Stuart’s grandparents— all of which are connected by pristine fields, woods, creek and rivers. 

“The region is threatened by proposed construction and operation of a uranium mine and mill at Coles Hill, within the rural historic landscape. 

“In addition to the loss of its characteristic rural qualities, this development could lead to groundwater contamination, noise pollution and real estate value loss and hinder future heritage tourism initiatives. 

“Local historians and concerned citizens seek to ensure that if the moratorium on uranium mining is lifted, Section 106 reviews are undertaken in the area prior to any licensing of the uranium mine.

“The Whitethorn-Banister area contains many diverse historic structures linked by pristine rural landscapes that represent the heritage of the area dating back to Native American fishing weirs, gristmills emblematic of the plantation based agricultural economy. If the mining and milling processes are allowed to take place, many acres of this historic landscape will be spoiled and its historic context disrupted,” Preservation Virginia continued in its announcement.

“There are environmental contamination risks as well as the potential decline in real estate values that could negatively impact the historic houses in the area. This may hinder any future heritage tourism initiatives that could be economically successful for the county and region.”

Preservation Virginia recommended the irreparable damage of the proposed mining to heritage tourism and the subsequent impact on the local economy should be considered. 

“Federal review, such as Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, would help document and mitigate the damage to these historic resources. We understand that it may not be required under the licensing of this mining and milling operation. If mining is allowed in the absence of 106 Review, these historic resources should be inventoried and documented. Specific plans for mitigation and protection should be developed to ensure that these resources are not lost forever,” it concluded.