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SU annex clears a hurdle – UPDATE: Final council vote moved

By Staff | Nov 13, 2009

From left, former councilman and annexation supporter Neal Martineau listens along with annexation opponents Hilary Lo and Sonya Evanisko as Planning Commissioner Josh Stella voices his concerns about the annexation. Photo by Michael Theis/Chronicle

Tonight’s special Town Council meeting has been moved from the Town Hall to the first floor meeting room of the War Memorial Building at German and King Streets. The meeting starts at 6:30 p.m.

Inside, the Town Council will hold the final reading and vote on the proposal to annex the 11 dormitories on Shepherd University’s West Campus. The Town Council will also hold a first reading of a revised municipal floodplain ordinance.

The meeting was moved due to increasing interest in the annexation from the general public. Over the weekend, a number of prominent local opponents to the annexation, many of them year-round Shepherdstown residents, lent their time marshaling support for their cause via local email networks and distributing leaflets alerting residents to the impending vote.

Updated 11-17-09, 11:10 a.m. by Michael Theis, Chronicle

The petition to annex the 11 dormitories of Shepherd University’s west campus is two steps closer to reality after receiving the approval of the Planning Commission and a successful first reading of the petition by the Town Council.

The annexation petition still requires one more vote by the Town Council and the approval of the County Commission before it becomes law. The Council will meet in special session on Nov. 17 at 6:30 p.m. for the second vote on the petition.

On Monday night, during special session, the planning commission voted four to two, with one abstention, to recommend the annexation to the town council. The very next night, following a failed motion to deny the petition by councilman Stuart Wallace, the town council voted four to one to approve the measure.

Both the planning commission and the town council meetings featured similar lines of debate from faces who have become familiar during these proceedings.

Opponents of the annexation cited concerns over tipping the electoral scales in favor of the students.

Zenia Kuzma, an East High Street resident present at both the planning commission meeting and town council meeting, asserted that notions about low student voter turnout in municipal elections are outdated. She said that the youth involvement in the election of Barack Obama were harbingers of an increasingly active student electorate which could affect municipal politics.

West High Street resident Sonya Evanisko, also a vocal opponent of the annexation, urged the town council to wait and see if indeed Shepherdstown’s municipal government really needed to maintain a 14 percent share of video lottery funds to survive as a town. The addition of over 600 resident-students to the population of Shepherdstown would help maintain a 14 percent share of video lottery tax revenue distributed to municipalities in Jefferson County. Without the annexation, Shepherdstown’s share of video lottery funds could drop to 10 percent after the 2010 Census. In the last fiscal year Shepherdstown received over half a million dollars in video lottery funds.

Evanisko criticized the annexation as a money grab with no other benefits for the town.

“Would you consider waiting to see what happens with video lottery money in five or ten years?” Asked Evanisko. “If in ten years there is no video lottery money that comes back to the small towns, you wouldn’t ask for annexation, would you?”

Evanisko also asserted that Shepherdstownians would be willing to volunteer their time to provide municipal services like trash collection or pay increased taxes to make ends meet if Shepherdstown’s coffers ran low.

Mayor Auxer disagreed with Evanisko’s assessment and pointed out that it’s difficult to get volunteers to sit on municipal committees.

Planning Commissioner and Church Street resident Josh Stella addressed the town council. He had voted against the measure in the previous nights planning commission meeting. He urged the town council to mitigate the risk associated with the student electorate by modifying the town charter to specify that a certain percentage of the town council own and occupy a home within the town.

Councilman Howard Mills thought Stella’s solution reeked of a poll tax.

Speaking in favor of the annexation during both the planning commission meeting and the town council meeting was former councilman Neal Martineau. He urged the town council to approve the annexation and to disregard what he termed as “the exaggerated fear that annexed students will take control of our town government.”

Martineau asserted that opponents of the annexation were a vocal minority, and that the East Campus student-residents, number almost 400, have yet to flex their political muscle in town. He noted that the municipal election takes place during summer vacation, and that almost half of them are registered elsewhere, if at all.

Martineau, along with Mayor Auxer, stressed the quantifiable financial motivations which underpinned the annexation, but they also asserted that town-gown relations would be improved by the annexation.

In the end, the Town Council voted four to one to approve the annexation, with councilman Wallace the lone opposing vote. Councilmembers Jim Ford, Howard Mills, Lori Robertson and Wanda Grantham Smith voted for the measure. This followed a failed motion to deny the annexation by councilman Stuart Wallace which was not seconded.

The previous night, the planning commission voted to approve the measure by a vote of four to two, with one abstention. Commissioners Catharine Wilson and Josh Stella voted against the measure. Commissioner Karene Motivans chose to abstain from voting.

Explaining their opposition votes, Wilson and Stella both cited concerns about the potential impact of adding a large number of residential students to the electorate of the municipality. After the meeting, Stella explained that he had mixed feelings about the annexation which motivated him to vote against the recommendation.

“I wanted to be voice of concern that could be heard at Town Council.” Said Stella.

Karene Motivans, the lone abstainer from the vote said that she also had mixed feelings about the annexation.

“The narrowness of the plot, it seemed to meet only the minimum requirements,” said Motivans. “They could have included the Popodicon [the mansion which Shepherd University provides for its president], or something to be an asset for the town.”