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Time running out on W.Va. county commission bill

November 30, 1999|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. ? Time is running out on lawmakers who are attempting to pass a bill that would allow Berkeley County voters to decide whether to add two people to the county commission, Del. Craig Blair said Friday.

The county commission on Thursday voted 2-1 in favor of requesting lawmakers to introduce the bill, and all five delegates who represent Berkeley County in the House of Delegates signed on as sponsors. The bill would increase the number of county commissioners from three to five.

"I'm getting concerned about it," said Blair, R-Berkeley, the lead sponsor of the bill, who acknowledged the commission's request to introduce the legislation, since tagged House Bill 3269, came late in the legislative process ? the day before the Friday deadline to introduce such a bill.

Blair acknowledged the bill has a number of hurdles to clear before Wednesday, which falls on another deadline ? the last day for such legislation to be considered in its house of origin.

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Blair said he had obtained a commitment from House Judiciary Committee Chair Carrie Webster to run the bill through her committee, but the deadline to pass the bill out of a committee is today unless House rules are suspended.

Though the House is expected to reconvene today at 5 p.m., Blair wasn't sure whether Webster would announce a committee meeting. Regardless, he praised the Kanawha County delegate and other Democratic leaders for their willingness to work the Republican caucus in the first session of the 78th Legislature.

"I've been very pleased with our leadership," Blair said.

Following Blair as lead sponsor of the bill are Jonathan Miller, R-Berkeley; John Overington, R-Berkeley; Walter Duke, R-Berkeley; and Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson.

Given the bill's last-minute introduction Friday, state Sen. John Unger wondered if it would make it to the House floor in time for a first of three required readings, which can be manipulated if the House leadership suspends rules of procedure.

"It's not like it's a new issue," Unger said.

Unger, D-Berkeley, added that he is skeptical about whether county residents are in favor of expanding the size of the commission, noting the petition drive a few years ago that failed to gain the necessary 10 percent of registered voters' signatures.

Some like Norwood Bentley, the Berkeley County Commission's legal counsel, believe a petition still is required to accompany a legislative request by county leaders to hold a vote on whether to reform a county commission.

But Blair said he and other lawmakers are relying on the legal interpretation of West Virginia University law professor Robert M. "Bob" Bastress Jr., who apparently believes a petition isn't necessary for the county to ask to be allowed to hold a special election. Bastress wrote a book about the West Virginia Constitution in 1995, according to his faculty profile posted on WVU's Web site.

"The county commission is giving (residents) the opportunity to decide," Blair said.

Yet, in a county commission reform request introduced this session on behalf of Hampshire County leaders, a petition of registered voters, albeit from 2003, was attached, Del. Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, said Thursday.

She confirmed that House Bill 3036 would allow voters in the state's oldest county to decide whether to replace their three-seat county commission with an eight-seat tribunal. According to the bill, residents of each magisterial district in the county would have a representative alone chosen by constituents residing in the same district. Hampshire has two more magisterial districts than Berkeley County's six, and three more than Jefferson County, the only among West Virginia's 55 counties that has more than three commissioners, with five.

If Berkeley County's five-seat commission bill is enacted, Commission President Steven C. Teufel has said the expansion question would be placed on a special election ballot in November, when voters already will be asked to decide whether to enact a land-use zoning ordinance.

While the fate of the commission expansion bill is far from clear, Duke confirmed Friday that legislation meant to ease the concerns of Berkeley County landowners wary of a zoning ordinance passed the House on a voice vote Friday, and now is expected to be taken up by the Senate.

If enacted, House Bill 2831 would eliminate a state requirement that a zoning ordinance be in place for five years before a transfer development rights program could be established.

In such a program, a developer could obtain a Back Creek Valley property owner's development rights in order to concentrate more building in another area where public water and sewer services already are in place, Duke said. As a result of the tradeoff, green space and farmland owners are compensated and development is more organized, he added.

"If that language doesn't get changed, then the property owners are not going to see any benefit for five years," Duke said.

House Bill 2831 also would allow the county to decide whether transferable development rights could be renewed, Duke said.

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