Kyger on annexation moratorium

Brent Finnegan -- March 10th, 2008

This is a follow-up to last week’s post about the moratorium on Virginia cities annexing into their neighboring counties. The moratorium is due to expire in 2010.

Here’s what Bill Kyger, Rockingham County District 4 Supervisor, has to say about the annexation moratorium:

I believe the moratorium has served both the city and the county well. It has allowed the county to make critical infrastructure investments from the eastern side of the county to the west and has done so by allowing the county to feel its investment was safe from a hostile grab by the city. The 1983 annexation was a boom for the city and almost caused economic disaster for the county.

In an email, Kyger references an older Virginia Tech study of Harrisonburg’s annexation into the county, which is apparently not available to read online.

In [the VT study] final analysis, the city got a bargain for $5.7 million, as the county lost a large portion of its industrial tax base in Pleasant Valley and almost all of its retail tax base at the Valley Mall. One only has to look at this year’s annual sales tax gross receipts to see the value that city received and the value the county lost […]

The county has long advocated the end of hostile annexations and will continue to do so. The need to extend the moratorium is critical for the residents of Rockingham County and the City of Harrisonburg. The loss of potential and existing tax base for the county at this stage would be economically devastating.

Like City Council member Charlie Chenault, Kyger emphasizes the “truce” between city and county, a stark contrast from the uneasy relationship the two municipalities had in the late 70s and early 80s. Kyger adds, “the moratorium has allowed the city and the county to look for more ways to share in cost of critical services to the residence of both jurisdictions.”

But what if the moratorium were to expire? Virginia is the only U.S. state in which cities and counties are separate legal entities; cities are independent, and until the 1980s, city councils could annex when they saw fit. Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, the two entities sometimes developed revenue-sharing agreements, but some of those agreements are under scrutiny from county officials. Other counties, like the now-extinct Princess Anne County, have merged into the city itself. But Kyger says that sort of merger is not a realistic option for Rockingham. “In order to merge the city and the county, the seven towns [within the county] would have to give up their charters and likewise, their identities. I do not see that as a realistic option, nor would I advocate such a movement,” Kyger wrote.

Kyger’s solution: Harrisonburg should give up being “the friendly city” and become “the biggest friendly town in Virginia.”

[…] it would be much easier and less complicated if the city would revert to town status. This would allow the city to maintain its current structure of government and zoning jurisdiction. It would allow for most, if not all, current city services to remain intact, and most of all, it would merge the tax bases of the city and the county at the same time allowing the county to enter into friendly boundary expansion for the city like we do with our seven towns because the county looses [sic] little tax revenue. […] I personally believe the best long-term option would be reversion. Harrisonburg would immediately become the state’s largest town and the county would benefit of knowing that we will not loose [sic] critical revenue as the result of annexation under its current format.”

I’ll follow up on that thought in some future post…

Last year, Governor Kaine vetoed Del. Matt Lohr’s moratorium extension bill. Here’s an excerpt from the Virginia Municipal League report:

The governor said that there was no rush on this extension, and that the legislature should study the impact of the annexation moratorium on cities. The moratorium applies only to a limited number of cities. Many cities are barred from annexation by either geography or by other laws establishing the ability of counties to obtain complete or partial immunity from annexation.

According to Richmond Sunlight, Sen. Emmet Hanger’s SB742, which retains funding for the so-called “599 funds” for city police departments, was just signed into law by Governor Kaine. “The 599 program originated in a compromise bill that placed a moratorium to stop cities from annexing county lands” (writes SNL’s Lauren Fulbright).

However, Hanger’s bill does not extend or end the moratorium. A number of bills addressing the moratorium have failed this year, including HB509 (which would have ended the moratorium, but given counties immunity from annexation), and SB656 (would have extended the moratorium to 2018).

15 Responses to “Kyger on annexation moratorium”

  1. Thanh says:

    Brent or anybody, can you englighten me on how “hostile annexations” happen? Like, what does it entail? How can a City take over land without consent of the surrounding County? Is it something that people in that area vote for? How does it get decided and what’s the procedure for making it happen? Thanks so much.

  2. finnegan says:

    That’s a good question, Thanh. Someone like Joe or Charlie would probably know the answer.

    My (limited) understanding of how it worked is that it was similar to eminent domain. If the city wanted X acres of land just outside the city limits, attorneys filed the paperwork, and the city grabbed it from the county.

    Ironic to think that so many city residents felt/feel invaded by JMU’s expansion. I’m sure county officials felt the same way in the 70s and early 80s.

  3. charlie chenault says:

    Thanh – in the old days, the city filed an annexation suit against the county. The suit was heard by a panel of 3 circuit court judges from areas other than the jurisdictions involved appointed by the Supreme Court of Virginia. The actual hearing took over a week, and the decision was appealed by the county to the Supreme Court of Virginia which upheld the 3 judge panels decision. No voting involved other than for the public officials who made the decisions to file the suit and to contest it. Landowners adjoining a city can still petition the Circuit Court for annexation into the neighboring city.
    Thanks – Charlie

  4. Thanh says:

    I had no idea… Thanks Charlie for taking the time to explain that!

  5. Bubby says:

    As a recent County immigrant from the current Largest Town in Virginia and a long time observer of the MontgomeryCo – Blacksburg relationship I believe that reverting Harrisonburg to town status would only accelerate the pace of sprawl development in Rockingham.

    The infusion of taxes from the 41,000 ‘burgers would fill the
    county coffers, and the diffusion of authority to a BOS would facilitate expanding hamlets like Preston Lakewood ‘Town’ – clusters of development that suckle on Harrisonburg and are built with flimsy infrastructure at the whim of who-knows-who.

    With an annexation moratorium, there is little disincentive to construct an expensive, poorly planned, low-density “rind” around Harrisonburg. The cost will be higher taxes, a necklace of strip-mall quickfood development, or both.

    Why shouldn’t Harrisonburg annex the Valley Mall area? It wouldn’t exist but for the proximity of the City. Neither would Barrington, Lakewood, Lakeview, Highland Park etc. The mistake was not taking a buffer, and gaining the tax-base when the City had a chance.

    This is a dangerous game the County plays. If Harrisonburg decides to throw in the towel and revert to town status, the County will have to assume the expenses for schools, and other infrastructure, while enduring the shocking democratization of County politics. There will be fever in the boardroom – count on it.

  6. finnegan says:

    Nice analysis, Bubby.

    I highly doubt H’burg would go through with it.

    The whole moratorium is a band-aid solution. It was a band-aid in 1987, and it’s a band-aid now. It seems clear to me that General Assembly needs to take the time to carefully go through the state code that grants cities their power, and come up with a permanent fix–a compromise solution that both municipalities can live with. Otherwise, this “temporary” moratorium will last long after you or I are gone.

    … But what am I thinking? Assembly can’t even figure out how to fund the roads we drive on.

    We’re going to be looking at some desperate measures addressing the annexation moratorium over the next two years.

  7. finnegan says:

    I hadn’t noticed this before now, but Scott Rogers has a map of the history of H’burg annexations on his blog.

    As you can see, H’burg wouldn’t be much at all without annexing.

  8. Miriam says:

    Bubby. I am not sure what you mean by the “Valley Mall area” but the city’s current eastern limit extends past Chestnut Ridge. Ergo, the taxes (sales, property, etc.) from that area are part of our (the city’s) current tax base.

    If anyone is curious, the city provides maps online here:

  9. finnegan says:

    I think Bubby’s referring to Kyger’s statement, “the county lost a large portion of its industrial tax base in Pleasant Valley and almost all of its retail tax base at the Valley Mall.” The mall area used to be in the county.

    If you look at the map on Scott’s blog, you’ll see just how big the 1983 annexation was (in pink). The mall area was within the 1983 grab.

  10. JGFitzgerald says:

    The math of annexation is actually pretty simple. Take the population of counties that might be subject to annexation and compare it to the population of cities that might want to annex. Whether annexation comes back may rest on those numbers, and the corresponding representation in the General Assembly. Those numbers do not, however, guarantee a sensible substitute.

    Another factor is the percentage of the state’s population (and GA reps) in counties larger than nearby cities (think Fairfax, Chesterfield) but with the rights of Wise or Page counties. That’s not strictly true, because of exceptions passed over the years in order to further muddy the waters, but it’s close.

    The real problem is a paternalistic system designed to keep localities at war with one another while having to go begging to the GA for permission to raise money or change any but the least significant laws.

    There will almost certainly be a moratorium extension or some solution just as disconnected from the problem. But a sweeping, realistic, serious answer to the issue of local government structure in Virginia is as likely as a transportation plan that works, consistent education funding, or an admission that the car tax plan failed.

  11. Bubby says:

    Yeah, Brent has it right – the developers of the Valley Mall were not targeting the mennonite population of Rockingham County. They were targeting the concentrated urban demographic of Harrisonburg. The only claim that the County has to that development is a line on a map, which annexation effectively corrected.

    The County “industrial” tax base is agriculture – the third largest farm-acreage in the Commonwealth. And judging by my conversations with the citizens, they like it that way. So my advice to the BOS/County is to make nice with the City, form an Industrial Development partnership and build on our different identities and shared future to strengthen our tax base and quality of life.

  12. finnegan says:

    To add onto what Joe and Bubby said, this can easily be viewed through a political lens. As a general rule, Virginia cities tend to vote for Democrats, while counties (with exceptions of more liberal suburban and exurban regions) tend to vote for Republicans.

    If cities in Virginia grow, rural Republicans (like Matt Lohr) stand to lose. It’s a similar situation to the political redistricting scheduled to occur in 2011. There is much at stake.

  13. samhottinger says:

    In the last annexation in the 80’s the City government at the time knew that the moratorium was coming and decided that the only way to keep the city from being strangled was to annex before the moratorium took effect. They had to show that they would be providing or were already providing certain services that the County was incapable of providing for its residents. Water and sewer services are one good example. All of the documents that were created for the annexation are still kept at Community Devlopment and are actually quite interesting.
    Look at the maps of Harrisonburg and imagine what the City would be like today without the annexation. We would basically be the ghetto of the County. They would have all the retail, indistrial and agricultural tax base and the City would be stuck trying to educate the majority of the population with no tax income other than sales and meals. If you look at Mr. Kygers solution to the problem you can see the real reason behind his wanting Harrisonburg to be a town. The County would get to fill its coffers at the expense of the residents of the City. What benefit do you get from being a town resident. You have to pay taxes to both the town and the County. That’s great, double taxes should make everybody happy. What really needs to happen is the County needs to get over the annexation and realize that if they don’t work with the City (and Vice Versa) the will both suffer.

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