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Growth issues focus of interim meetings

November 11, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Funding for new Eastern Panhandle schools, proposed regulations to protect homeowners from quarry operations and farmland protection are expected to be among the issues discussed when the Legislature holds interim meetings here beginning Sunday.

The West Virginia Legislature concludes its regular session in the spring, but holds interim meetings to give lawmakers a chance to study issues that are likely to come up for consideration before the law-making body.

Interim committees are made up of nearly equal numbers of Senate and House of Delegates members.

Local lawmakers say they like legislators from across the state to come to the Eastern Panhandle for the meetings to familiarize them with issues unique to the growing Panhandle.

"We just want to give the Legislature a chance to see what is happening up here," said Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

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Between Sunday and Tuesday, the state's 134 lawmakers have blocked off time for 50 meetings and hearings.

Sunday's meetings will be held at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Conservation Training Center and Monday and Tuesday's sessions will be held at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center.

Among the issues:

Farmland protection

A finance subcommittee will hold a public hearing Sunday at 4 p.m. on a proposed farmland protection act that some see as a way of reversing a trend of disappearing farmland in the Panhandle.

The proposed Voluntary Farmland Protection Act would set up protective easements on farms to block them from development.

Any farmer who participates in the program would agree to a protective easement in return for an amount of money awarded to the farmer, according to the proposal.

Unger said he will introduce the proposal during the regular session of the Legislature in January, but he wanted to have a hearing to gather support for the measure.

The money to pay farmers for protective easements would come from a $35 million pool of federal government money that 20 other states currently use for such efforts.

"We're not actually asking the state to put up any money at this point," Unger said.

Between 1992 and 1997, 807 acres of farmland disappeared in Berkeley County and 1,290 acres in Jefferson County, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

School funding

Lawmakers tried unsuccessfully last year to pass proposals to increase funding for new school construction in the Panhandle, but two local organizations hope to renew the effort Tuesday in a 5 p.m. meeting with lawmakers.The Martinsburg-Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce and the Eastern Panhandle Business Association want a mechanism put in place that would funnel school construction money to counties that are seeing rapid growth, said Martinsburg attorney Norwood Bentley.

The state School Building Authority, one of the main revenue sources for new school construction, chooses school projects for funding.

Bentley, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce's government affairs committee, said supporters of the plan don't want to write a proposal that would mandate growing counties get a specific amount of school money because they realize state funds are limited.

"We just want to make sure the Legislature understands the problems we face," Bentley said.

Lawmakers say the need for more school construction money is great; although the state has a funding formula to help counties account for growth, it is not always funded.

Berkeley County and Jefferson County are the last two counties to start full-day kindergarten, because there is insufficient classroom space for the program, Unger said.

Quarry legislation

A judiciary committee will hear arguments for and against a new quarry bill Sunday at 2 p.m.

Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley, said he wants legislation that would enlarge buffer zones between quarries and houses, churches and schools. Faircloth said he would like to try for a 1,000-foot buffer.

Faircloth said he supports a bill to help residents of Blairton, who get their water from the Riverton Corp. The company, which owns the land on which the people live, wants to stop providing water.

Government officials have been trying to find a way to extend water to Blairton residents.

Gaming

An interim gaming committee will hold a public hearing from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday on video poker machines found in bars and convenience stores.

Playing the machines is legal but cash payouts are not. Making payouts legal could mean up to $100 million a year in new tax revenues, said Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson.

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