CHARLES TOWN – Does West Virginia law give more than 640 property owners a collective say whether their properties will be included in a 2,602-acre annexation proposed by the City of Charles Town?
Or do special provisions in state law allow Charles Town’s proposed boundary expansion to proceed without obtaining a majority consent of those affected property owners?
These questions will be debated Sept. 15 before the West Virginia Supreme Court, positioning the court to resolve a legal question left unresolved for more than three years. The oral arguments are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.
That’s when oral arguments will be presented to the state’s highest court in a case involving differing interpretations of municipal annexation law between the City of Charles Town and the Jefferson County Commission.
Jefferson County is the only jurisdiction in West Virginia to create urban growth boundaries, planning mechanisms designed to define and direct where municipalities might expand their boundaries in the future. The outcome of the case could potentially affect future municipal annexations in Jefferson County.
In addition to Charles Town, the municipalities of Ranson, Shepherdstown and Bolivar have urban growth boundaries.
Charles Town officials believe that, under provisions related to “minor boundary adjustments” within an urban growth planning boundary first mapped out for Charles Town in 2003, that the city already has the inherent authority to move forward with the annexation—even without obtaining a vote of approval from affected property owners.
“It is the clear intent of the legislature [to] create a new planning tool to encourage a more efficient and effective way of managing urban growth in West Virginia,” states a brief that Charles Town officials submitted in the case before the Supreme Court.
“The City has the right to annex property within [its] Urban Growth Boundary, and that once the City has determined that an annexation is a minor boundary adjustment, it can annex property within the Urban Growth Boundary.”
In part seeking to replace a random “Swiss cheese” pattern of the city’s current borders with more cohesive, logical and functional boundaries, Charles Town officials have said the proposed annexation involved in the court appeal would help the city plan for development and deliver services more efficiently and promote stronger long-term economic development.
If adopted, the boundary expansion would add roughly 2,100 new residents to Charles Town’s 5,900 population. About 609 homes and 38 commercial properties would come into the city’s corporate boundaries. The city would also collect more than $1 million in estimated new property tax revenue.
However, the county commission disagrees. Initially on April 6, 2017, and then again in a clarification six days later, the commission unanimously rejected the city’s annexation because the proposal did not include a vote of approval by the majority of those property owners.
The commission also further agreed that the city’s proposed annexation was too large to be considered a minor boundary adjustment under state law addressing annexations within municipal urban growth boundaries.
The commission defended its decision rejecting the annexation in a brief to the Supreme Court by asking: “The central question in this case is this: Do citizens who reside within a municipal urban growth boundary [that has not yet been annexed] have the same rights of self-determination as citizens who live outside of an urban growth boundary? … Even though all other instances of annexation require a majority vote or petition of the citizens/freeholders who live in the affected area?”
The commission answered its question this way: “A plain reading of W.Va. Code 8-6-4a©(2) gives the exact same protection to citizens within an urban growth boundary as it does to citizens outside of an urban growth boundary. In fact, any other interpretation would likely be unconstitutional on its face simply because it would fail to provide due process/equal protection to citizens within and without an urban growth boundary.”
Charles Town officials appealed the county commission’s decision to a Jefferson County Circuit Court. On March 28, 2019, Judge David Hammer issued an opinion siding with the commission. He determined that state law protects property owners from having their land annexed by actions initiated by municipal officials without the collective approval of the affected property owners.
Two months later, further pressing their interpretation of state annexation law, Charles Town officials appealed Hammer’s ruling to the Supreme Court. “This interpretation of the annexation statutes [by Hammer] ignores the fact that the legislature created a unique process of annexation in areas within an Urban Growth Boundary,” city officials argue to the high court. “Further, instead of making the annexation within an Urban Growth Boundary easier, the Court’s findings make the process more cumbersome.
“The [circuit] Court exceeded its authority in substituting its opinion for the clear legislative intent concerning the annexation within the Urban Growth Boundary.”
Scheduling the oral arguments in the case for September puts the Supreme Court on track to likely issue an opinion by Nov. 20, according to Jennifer Bundy, the court’s public information officer.