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Growth debate got nasty in Jefferson County in 2006

December 26, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - 2006 has been quite a year for the growth debate in Jefferson County.

Controversies have erupted over growth plans which the City of Charles Town has considered, water and sewer lines that were laid across part of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and impact fees passed by county government to help pay for services needed because of growth.

Things have been personal, too.

Citizens have faced suit over concerns they have raised about housing development and a group of local developers filed a petition in Jefferson County Circuit Court against Jefferson County Planning Commission member Todd Baldau, claiming Baldau has committed "multiple acts of misconduct."

The initial case against Baldau was thrown out on a technicality, but developers have filed another case against Baldau and the issue over how Baldau's legal expenses should be paid has generated its own debate.

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Charles Town City Council members tried to censure council member Matt Ward over comments he made on a Martinsburg radio station about the city's growth rate and last week, people packed the Jefferson County Commission chambers after commission members considered terminating long-time county planning department director Paul Raco from his position.

While some people commented made during the commission meeting that there has been disappointment in the planning commission office, citizens likened the effort to remove Raco from his job to a "train wreck" and the "most bizarre happening" in the county for some time.

"The intensity of issue discussion is at the highest level in the 17 years I've lived here," said Fred Blackmer, head of a local organization that represents the interests of housing developers and others on growth-related issues.

Despite the deep divisions that exist between those who want more growth or less of it, Blackmer said he thinks it is possible for resolution. The only way improvement can occur is if elected officials work to find consensus on issues, said Blackmer of the Jefferson County Citizens for Economic Preservation.

Ward said growing numbers of candidates who stand for controlled growth are getting elected, which shows people are concerned about the issue. Now a select group of people in the county are trying to hang onto their dominance in steering the outcome of the debates, said Ward, who has been outspoken about the importance of having well-managed growth in the area.

"The tools have become blunt instruments and the fighting has become mean. I think we're at a tipping point," Ward said.

Ward said he believes the way to get beyond the battles is to set up a vision for how the county should grow and increase public participation in the growth process so common ground can be found on issues.

Ward also said he thinks policy makers should go by the "95-5 principal." That means that among all the growth issues, usually about 5 percent are the most contentious. Ward said the county needs to concentrate on the 95 percent that most people can agree on and move on.

Charles Town City Council member Donald Clendening, who has called for more commercial growth in Charles Town and who often is at odds with Ward, said growth is the "absolute dominant issue" in the county.

Whether it will change, "Lord only knows," Clendening said.

Clendening said what is spurring most of the ill-feelings is that people who want to control growth are more vocal than people who want commercial growth or people who don't care about the issue.

Commission member Rusty Morgan holds out hope that things will get better.

Morgan said county residents have given significant input on how the county's land-use laws should be rewritten and there seems to be "buy-in" on how farmland would be treated in the new zoning laws.

"Better times are coming. This community has always rallied and always overcome these things," Morgan said.

As in political circles, the thinking on the street among residents is divided as well.

Melissa Rudolph of Charles Town said it has been exciting to see some of the growth which has taken place in the county. But it has been done better in some places compared to others and the debate among elected officials over the issue has been "very ugly," Rudolph said.

Chase Hixon has not been happy with what development has done to the county.

Hixon said he used to enjoy carefree days fishing and enjoying other outdoor activities in the county, but that is changing. Hixon said he used to fish, sometimes into the night, on the Shenandoah River in the Bloomery area but now the area has been plagued with stabbings and other crime.

"I wouldn't do it without my shotgun these days," said Hixon.

"It's turning into the suburbs of Washington, D.C.," Hixon said of the development trends in the county.

"If they want to be in that, just go down there," Hixon said.

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