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W.Va. governor, Panhandle leaders discuss growth

September 02, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - When Gov. Cecil Underwood and his Cabinet met Thursday to discuss issues affecting the Eastern Panhandle, one took center stage: Growth.

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Meeting at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center here, local leaders told the governor they feel helpless in preparing for what they see as an onslaught that is about to hit the Panhandle.

Jefferson County is next door to Loudoun County, Va., the sixth fastest-growing county in the country, said Jefferson County Commission President James K. Ruland.

Loudoun County's booming growth is highlighted by construction of a new America Online world headquarters near Herndon, Va., that will employ 25,000, said Ruland. To serve its booming population, Loudoun County is proposing $400 million in new school construction, Ruland told Underwood and his Cabinet.

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And when Loudoun County runs out of room, Jefferson County is next in line, he said.

"There's no way to escape the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., megopolis other than to move west. We are right in that growth path," Ruland said.

When the commissioners try to make preparations for the growth, their hands are tied, Ruland said.

West Virginia counties have the authority to impose impact fees to pay for the added services needed to serve a growing population. But the state requirements by which counties must abide to collect the fees are so complex that no county has taken advantage of them, Ruland said.

"The results are potentially catastrophic," he said. "Out-of-control development steals the quality of life from our citizens today while rendering us undesirable as a destination in the future."

Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said the state's requirements to implement impact fees are no different from those in other states. The requirements are the result of court rulings and therefore cannot be omitted from the regulations, he said.

Neither Jefferson County nor Berkeley County has implemented impact fees, which are collected from developers to help offset the costs of water and sewer service, schools, emergency services and other necessities.

To implement impact fees, counties must impose building codes and zoning regulations.

Jefferson County has zoning but no building codes, and Berkeley County has building codes but no zoning.

Doyle suggested Jefferson County approve building codes and that Berkeley County implement zoning to pave the way for impact fees in the two counties.

"I would strongly suggest both of you to proceed with this," he said.

Underwood said the National Governors' Conference, of which he is a member, is doing a study on proposed "smart growth" strategies to determine how communities can deal with population growth. Underwood said he will reserve comment on the issue until the study is completed.

In general, Underwood said he supports letting local communities and counties deal with growth rather than imposing state regulations.

"It's extremely important that we plan now for our growth. I see nothing but continued growth and expansion here," Underwood said.

Underwood said he brought his Cabinet to the Panhandle to hear concerns of local officials and help erase the idea that Charleston is out out touch with the area's needs.

Underwood, his staff and local officials spent about seven hours discussing various issues, including roads, schools, health care, public safety, tourism and business.

"I'm sure we have a far better understanding of the momentum of the Eastern Panhandle than we did a week ago," Underwood said at the close of the meeting.

Morgan County Commissioner Phil Maggio said it is vital to begin to widen W.Va. 9 and to upgrade U.S. 522 to give Morgan County residents improved access to the rest of the Panhandle and the economic promise it offers.

"Preparedness seems to be our main concern," Maggio told Underwood.

Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, said the Berkeley County Schools are gaining about 500 students a year, the equivalent of about two new elementary schools. The state has provided funds to help pay for the additional educational services needed for the students, but there has been little money to help build more schools, Snyder said.

"Our interests are so different from the rest of the state," he said.

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