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Berkeley Co. Council hears from Hedgesville residents

September 05, 2013|By RICHARD F. BELISLE | richardb@herald-mail.com

HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. — More than 70 people crowded into the Hedgesville fire hall Thursday night to air concerns about making churches pay fire service fees, about how homeowners associations can enforce covenants and the need for more police and emergency services in The Woods development.

The gathering was a town hall meeting of the Berkeley County Council.

Harriet Kopp, a member of the Gerrardstown Presbyterian Church, said she objects to the April 12, 2012, county council vote to amend the county’s 27-year-old fire service fee to include churches.

Kopp said the fees, based on square footage, could force small churches with limited budgets to close or force others to choose between paying fire fees or supporting a charity.

She argued that because of their tax-exempt status, there are no county assessment records of church buildings. “In researching and sharing my concerns with other churches, I have found that square footages were incorrect and buildings (were) incorrectly identified as church property."

Some of Kopp’s concerns were answered in a June 25 letter to her from Greg Rhoe, chairman of the Berkeley County Fire Board.

In his letter, Rhoe explained to Kopp that the Berkeley County Planning Department had little information on church properties which did not need building permits until the 1990s.

“The fire board used the best information available knowing there would be a need for corrections,” Rhoe said in the letter. The City of Martinsburg’s fire fees have always included churches, he said.

Kopp asked the council to clarify the difference between a fee and tax; to justify the constitutionality of the fee; describe how it will be implemented; explain why the county is the first to charge churches and why the county can’t pay for fire service costs out of general revenue funds.

Council President Anthony Petrucci said Kopp would have answers in a week.

Robert E. Ayer, a member of the Spring Mills Homeowners Association, spoke for members of several associations in the audience. He sought advice on how associations could add legal weight to their covenants to force owners and absentee landlords to maintain their properties.

George Tenley spoke for residents of The Woods, a 2,000-acre, 1,243-home development west of Hedgesville.

He said the residents are primarily retirees. “Access to emergency services is especially critical to our aging residents. We remain dependent on Berkeley County to provide emergency police and fire services including ambulance and EMT services.”

Several emergency services officials present said the county is working on beefing up services in that area.

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