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Annexation debate grows

September 11, 2007|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - It's a debate that's aired often in Jefferson County.

The cities of Ranson and Charles Town have added thousands of acres to their boundaries since 2002, considering it necessary to create strong economies in their towns.

County officials have complained that the annexations complicate their land-planning efforts and leave them "stuck" with providing services for the growing county.

The issue arose again Monday when a group of state lawmakers heard arguments from both sides over whether changes need to be made in state annexation laws.

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The discussion came before Judiciary Subcommittee B as part of a string of legislative interim meetings being held this week at the Holiday Inn on Foxcroft Avenue in Martinsburg.

The discussion started with a presentation by Jefferson County Commission President Frances Morgan, who took issue with annexation proponents who are "locked in a race" to take in land across the rural county.

Meanwhile, the commission has been told there is nothing it can do about the annexations, Morgan said.

Two maps were set up at the front of the room, one showing where Ranson has annexed more than 4,000 acres and another showing how Charles Town has taken in 2,424 acres.

In its newly annexed areas along the Charles Town Bypass, Ranson has enjoyed significant commercial growth that is illustrated by a new Kohl's department store, a Weis Markets supermarket, The Home Depot, and a string of other businesses and restaurants.

That might be good for Ranson's finances, but Morgan worries about the government's ability to regulate such rapid growth.

Morgan said the commission was recently told by Jefferson County Health Department officials that they are having trouble hiring sanitarians - the people who conduct restaurant inspections - because of the low salaries offered for the positions.

During the same time period, 30 new restaurants opened in the county, Morgan said.

"I can say to you, that is a recipe for disaster," Morgan told lawmakers.

About 75 people attended the meeting, representing a cross-section of developers, Eastern Panhandle government officials and residents who watch local growth issues closely.

Ranson annexed its new land under new state law that was passed about 2002.

Before the law change, annexations could be accomplished through a petition from landowners or a city election. But before a petition could be submitted or an election could be held, there had to be a certain population density in the land being annexed.

The population density requirement was dropped under the new law, meaning that annexations by petition simply needed to have the backing of the majority of property owners.

Ranson Mayor David Hamill pointed to the successful commercial development that has unfolded in Ranson since annexation laws were changed. Besides commercial growth, it also has allowed the city to pursue other projects to benefit the community, like a $2 million youth football field behind Kohl's that was dedicated last weekend.

Hamill questioned why a city would not want to have that type of growth.

"That's what cities are supposed to do," Hamill said. "You've given us the tools. Look at what we've built."

Jefferson County developer Terry Marcus, who has been involved in the development along the Charles Town Bypass, said the growth in the corridor will represent a $500 million investment in the state.

"I may be a hillbilly, but that's a pretty good investment from where I come from," Marcus said.

Members of the judiciary committee asked the speakers questions, and proponents of annexation reform were happy to hear Sen. Clark S. Barnes' views.

Although a property owner has a right to petition a city to bring a piece of land into a municipality, Barnes, R-Randolph, pointed out that the process effectively throws out a portion of the county's zoning system every time it happens.

"I can see a problem there," Barnes said after the meeting.

Besides the Legislature's examination of the issue, the state Supreme Court of Appeals is also expected to review the state's annexation procedures in a case to be heard Sept. 19, officials at the meeting said.

"I think we'll be watching the actions of the court," said judiciary subcommittee member Sen. Michael A. Oliverio II, D-Monongalia.

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