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Council questions growth boundary

By Staff | Mar 12, 2010

Proposed Shepherdstown Urban Growth Boundary

A proposed urban growth boundary for Shepherdstown is flummoxing municipal officials who say they are still unclear on how legally binding the boundary is, or if it is even needed. The Jefferson County Commission has requested that the Town Council approve Shepherdstown’s proposed boundary.

During this weeks regular monthly meeting of the Shepherdstown Town Council, municipal zoning officer Michael Abshire attempted to answer questions from the council members about the boundary, but even he admitted he didn’t have all the answers. He says he has unsuccessfully asked members of the county government to clarify certain aspects of the boundary, but says that to this day he is still uncertain of how the proposed boundary was laid out, and how it could impact potential future annexations beyond the property.

“The county planner was unaware that we run a water line out to [the National Conservation Training Center] and Colonial Hills,” said Abshire during the meeting. “Is there a time in the future when the town may want to annex those in? I dunno, this is down the road, but my feeling is once this is done, once you all decide on this boundary, you’ll be stuck with it.”

According to a letter to the Shepherdstown Town Council filed by Abshire in advance of the meeting, the boundary was selected by the county as a recommendation for the Town Council to accept or modify. In the letter he says that the County Commission appears to be open to modifications of the boundary, should the Town Council decide to redraw it.

According to West Virginia annexation law, an urban growth boundary is an area “within which there is a sufficient supply of developable land…for at least a prospective twenty-year period of municipal growth based on demographic forecasts.” The boundary can only be established if both the County Commission and the local municipality agree to it. Once established, the boundary cannot be reduced without the written consent of the municipality.

The boundary also makes it easier to annex property that lies within it. Any annexations of land within the boundary would not require the approval of the County Commission.

Annexation of populated areas is one method by which a city may increase its revenue streams. In fact, the recent annexation of Shepherd University’s West Campus dormitories was motivated almost solely to maintain a predicted 14 percent share of video lottery funds available to Jefferson County municipalities.

Abshire says if the boundary is adopted, it may make it more difficult to annex land outside the boundary.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” said Abshire at the meeting “It’s like, hey let’s play like these boundaries are here. But as we all know there may be honor among thieves, but when it comes to money and politics, that honor gets left at the door.”

Mayor Jim Auxer said it was unclear what the consequences would be if Shepherdstown did not adopt the boundary. Auxer proposed submitting a list of questions to the County Commission and holding a public meeting where members of the County Commission could answer questions about the boundary. Councilman Howard Mills requested that County Commission President Lynn Widmyer be present at the meeting. Widmyer, in addition to her work on the County Commission, is also a professional county planner in Montgomery County, Md.

County Commissioner Jim Surkamp has been vocal in pressing Shepherdstown to adopt the ordinance. He said that the issue has been explained before. “We’ve already held several meetings on this,” said Surkamp by phone on Wednesday. “They need to read the law and talk to their lawyer.”

Surkamp says that the proposed boundary was produced by former Shepherdstown zoning officer John Mathews and the county government and is intended to prevent annexations which, as Surkamp put it, “make a city’s boundaries look like an inkblot.”

He singled out Ranson’s archipelago-like borders as something which an urban growth boundary would prevent. “Ranson is six miles wide!” Said Surkamp “It makes for very poor planning, and it makes it nearly impossible for cities or counties to provide efficient services.”

“Essentially, the boundary says we are not going to accept any [annexation] applications of any property owner [outside of the boundary] for the next 20 years,” said Surkamp.

Shepherdstown’s proposed urban growth boundary would stretch, north to south, from just short of Willowdale Drive off of Shepherd Grade Road to about a mile past Engle Moler Road, and east to west, from the intersection of W.Va. 45 and Billmyer Road to just west of Trough Road, off River Road.