Suddenly, city/county flap gets interesting

December 11, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

A fight between two local governments over annexation policy? Important, no doubt, but essentially boring to the average citizen.

A fight between two local governments that might cost this area some of those high-tech jobs everybody wants? Now that's guaranteed to get the attention of everyone who wants their children or grandchildren to do something other than shuffle boxes around in a warehouse.

Faced with a potential public-relations disaster, a city committee wisely backed down Monday night from a demand that Mountainside Teleport Corp. sign an annexation pact, clearing the way for the first tenant to locate in Allegheny Energy's Friendship Technology Park. The hook the committee hung its decision on was a 1966 agreement with Allegheny which commits the city to provide water to the property.

This is just the first of many such problems the area will face, according to former County Commissioner Bert Iseminger, who spoke to me Monday afternoon, he said, as a private citizen.


Iseminger, who's resisted the idea of a mediator for this dispute, this week said that if an arbitrator or mediator could bring the two governments together, he wouldn't object. But based on his experience, Iseminger said he didn't feel it would happen, in part because some who might mediate don't want to risk criticism by the press.

"I don't know who might want to get into the middle of that," he said.

A court ruling would settle the matter once and for all, Iseminger said, adding that it need not be a long drawn-out affair, since those involved would ask for an expedited hearing.

The court would likely grant that, Iseminger said, because some of the developers who would join the suit have major economic exposure. Some who began projects before the city announced its annexation policy are now being asked to sign agreements to annex if their property ever becomes contiguous to the city.

According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, "contiguous" means "adjoining" or "touching." The city's policy means that if your property line touches the city boundary, and you want city utility service, you must agree to annex.

But the policy also says that if your property does not adjoin the city now, but may in the future when the city expands, you must agree to annex in the future if you want utility service today.

It's this uncertainty that Iseminger says will play havoc with local economic-development efforts. Companies want to be able to calculate their bottom line for years to come. And with the maybe-we'll-have-to, maybe-we-won't possibility of annexation, that would be difficult, he said.

Iseminger is less persuasive when he talks about the possible effect on single-family home sales. Future homeowners who hadn't calculated the extra cost of city taxes might find themselves being forced to annex at a time when they could ill afford it, he said. Or worse, he said, someone who was transferred out of the area might have a difficult time selling the home because of the uncertainty surrounding annexation.

All things considered, most home buyers would rather pay only one property-tax bill. But real estate agents who did not disclose the annexation possibility would probably be liable for a bundle.

The economic-development argument came to the county like an unexpected fumble in the fourth quarter of a football game and will give the commissioners a real advantage in this dispute. But I'm less optimistic than Iseminger that the courts will act quickly.

As Iseminger noted, Circuit Court Judge Fred Wright, who scolded the county government at the swearing-in of the new board, would probably have to forego hearing the case as a result. Some others on the Circuit bench do not act as quickly as Judge Wright.

In last Sunday's second edition of my downtown Hagerstown retailers' gift guide, I mistakenly referred to Tony Kelly, the manager of Charm City Sports, at 137 W. Franklin St. as Tom Kelly. I apologize for that. The shop features clothing with the "We R One" label, endorsed by NBA stars Sam Cassell and Juan Dixon, whom I saw wearing a "We R One" hat during a recent TV interview.

It's located in the building that once housed the Hagerstown Laundry. Kelly has subdivided the storefront, sharing space with a cell phone provider to save cash. He and all the other hard-working downtown merchants deserve a look, at least, from all those rooting for downtown to succeed.

Speaking of downtown merchants, Brent Ricketts, the owner of Fat Boys Subs in downtown Charles Town, W.Va., says city officials are harassing him because they won't let him display his cartoon logo, which features a cartoon of a man eating a sub with his belly hanging out, saying it's not appropriate for an historic district.

Here's a thought: Why not help Ricketts re-do the sign, with a drawing of a portly gentleman that's more historically appropriate, something Ben Franklinish, perhaps? Such a gesture might convince Ricketts to go along with city officials, instead of battling them.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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