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Artificial boundaries are not a good basis for land-use decisions

April 01, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

Mayors and councils around the Tri-State region might not condone the angular, Piccaso-like annexation map proposed by developers in Charles Town, W.Va.

But they would certainly understand.

Even the Charles Town Council itself sounds dubious, acknowledging the odd configuration, while wistfully speaking of the economic development it would bring - and, left unsaid, the potential for city tax revenue.

The seven mile stretch of four-lane U.S. 340 between Charles Town and Harpers Ferry to the north is Jefferson County's carotid artery. It's primed for development. And it's primed for preservation. Take your pick. But as 340 goes, it can be argued, so goes the county itself.

Although Charles Town sprawl is already gurgling north, much of the drive - after weaving south through the Potomac's dramatic cleft in the mountains at Harpers Ferry - is still countryside.

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But it doesn't take much imagination to close the eyes and picture the landscape filled with offices, housing developments and Outbacks and AutoZones. From there, the progress, or disease, depending on your point of view, can only spread.

Developers have proposed a hotel and office complex weighing in at more than 600 acres and costing upwards of $250 million. They have asked for annexation into Charles Town and its services, leading to the current boundary curiosity.

The property is five miles north of the city, meaning Charles Town would effectively have to annex a five-mile stretch of U.S. 340 concrete before bulging out again to include the office complex. So a map of Charles Town would rather resemble a dumbbell.

Which is what preservationists are calling the idea. They're especially incensed because the property in question is surrounded by the Harpers Ferry National Park, and is said to be significant in terms of Civil War history.

Aside from the fact that you can probably say that every square foot of land between Winchester and Gettysburg is significant in terms of Civil War history, I suspect that this issue is ultimately more about what the county will look like 20 years hence.

If I were a member of the Charles Town Council, I'd be conflicted right now because the best interests of the city and the county appear to be at odds.

And while this situation certainly is unique, what's not unique are boundary problems with cities up and down the east coast.

When the boundary lines were drawn around many towns they certainly would have seemed ample enough. But neighborhoods expanded, and the artificial lines did not.

Once in place, it is notoriously difficult to annex these neighborhoods, because it usually requires a vote and few Americans vote for an extra layer of government when it can be avoided.

The perception is that city taxes are higher, and they are. But city services and utilities are usually cheaper (not to mention that you don't have to burn as much gas to get to the store) so in the end it is basically a financial wash.

But voters don't see it that way.

So as they city waistline expands, the number of notches in its belt does not. Cities are called on to modernize and do more, but their options are limited because their tax bases and budgets, like their boundaries, are landlocked.

So the city cannot keep up with the modern world. It declines. People who live downtown recognize this depreciation of services and move out - taking their incomes with them. And the population void is filled by people of limited income who can afford to go nowhere else.

The tax base is reduced even further, and unable to expand its base, the city is forced to raise taxes on the people who remain - which drives out even more people, fueling the downward spiral.

So if cities are feeling forced into, shall we say, creative annexation options, they may be somewhat excused.

Whether Charles Town feels any pressure to annex because it needs the cash, I can't say. Nor can I say whether relaxed annexation law would have relieved any pressure it may feel by allowing for a natural expansion of the tax base in more positive areas.

But I do know that existing tough annexation laws just about everywhere are enemies of orderly growth, because as cities get desperate they tend to approve development that perhaps they shouldn't.

Closer to home, Hagerstown should be a city of about 75,000 instead of closer to 35,000 and more easily met annexation requirements would allow that to happen. Popping the belt would give the city some much-needed financial breathing room, allowing leaders to pick and choose what's good growth and what's not.

Development should be permitted or not permitted based on population, utilities, community character and, yes, on occasion, scenery and the existence of a Civil War ghost or two. Developments based on artificial lines, or on which governments are more receptive or less receptive to the developer seldom yield the optimal result.

Projects such as the U.S. 340 complex should be decided on their merits, their location and what the residents want their county to be; they should not be decided by what lines go where. In short, they should be a land-use issues, not an annexation issue.

Unfortunately, the country's strict and inflexible annexation laws seldom allow pure reason to prevail.

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