CHARLESTON – The legal questions line up like a series of dominos poised to tip and fall. Where they’ll land before the West Virginia Supreme Court, however, could be any lawyer’s guess.
Do citizens in West Virginia always have a formal voice in whether their property is annexed by a municipality? Or would a special provision for undefined “minor” municipal boundary adjustments in a former state statute applying only to Jefferson County provide an exception?
Could a proposed annexation involving thousands of acres be considered a minor boundary adjustment?
Or is the whole legal knot, because of legislation enacted in February, even relevant and worth untying now?
Supreme Court justices heard arguments and asked questions Monday during oral arguments in a standoff between the City of Charles Town and the Jefferson County Commission over different interpretations of what is now former state annexation law.
A law sponsored by state Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, enacted in February attempts to clear up future disputes over municipal annexations. The law repealed a perplexing statutory pretzel related to undefined “minor” annexations to ensure that property owners will always have a say in all municipal boundary adjustments proposed in the future, Rucker said.
In the current case before the Supreme Court that began with an annexation proposal in 2017, the county commission is arguing that the state’s annexation law has always preserved property owners’ rights to be heard in some way.
Charles Town officials stand on the other side, pressing its position that a 2,602-acre annexation it initiated should have moved forward without a favorable referendum by affected property owners and without permission from the county commission.
City officials believe that an urban growth planning boundary the city established in 2003, addressed in annexation law and recognized by the county in 2010 gives them the authority for the annexation.
“We just want to know what we can do and how we can annex under this urban growth boundary,” said Floyd “Kin” Sayre, a Martinsburg attorney who argued a few technical points while representing the city. “No matter what we wanted to do, we now have to comply with the 2020 statutes.”
Jefferson County’s five commissioners unanimously rejected the city’s annexation because the proposal did not include a vote of approval by the majority of those property owners. They further agreed the boundary change couldn’t be considered a minor boundary adjustment to apply to annexations within urban growth boundaries
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.
Asserting several legal reasonings, Nathan Cochran, a county attorney representing the commission, argued that the city’s annexation was properly stopped even before a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge weighed in last year to uphold the rights of property owners.
“Is it moot?” Cochran told the justices of the city’s quest for a firm legal clarification. “That’s a question that you all have to decide.”
“I believe that the case below is dead,” he added. “And I kind of wonder why that, that we’re here.”
Holding the oral arguments this month puts the Supreme Court on track to likely issue an opinion by Nov. 20.