CHARLES TOWN – The third time was the charm for Mannings residents who are trying to have the small community on the western slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains incorporated.
The Jefferson County Commission agreed in a 3-1 vote last week to hold a public hearing to consider incorporating the village. This will be the third attempt to incorporate the community since 2009. Previous attempts were denied by the commission, which each time cited a lack of adequate information for residents. Commissioner Lyn Widmyer opposed the move, with Commissioners Dale Manuel, Jane Tabb and Patsy Noland voting in support. Commissioner Walt Pellish was absent.
Fred Blackmer, who is representing a group of around 40 landowners who signed a petition seeking a public hearing on the issue of incorporation, said he estimates that the population of the proposed municipality would be 650, more than double the population of Harpers Ferry, and that it would have a population density greater than that in either Harpers Ferry or Ranson.
The incorporation process begins with a petition submitted to the commission that must be signed by 30 percent of the landowners who reside within the borders of the proposed municipality. The commission will then review a variety plans, including plans for providing police, water and sewer. Finally, if the commission signs off on the plan, residents are given the chance to vote on the issue of incorporation in a special election. Information published at manningswv.org, a website created to promote incorporation, indicates the provision of most municipal services would be determined by an elected town council.
The petition accepted last week was identical to one the commission rejected in early 2011, which led Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Grove to argue that the commission should refuse to hold a public hearing, since it had previously rejected it. She later revised her advice, indicating that the commission could hold a hearing, but that it should reject the petition after that hearing and require the drafting of a new petition.
“It’s a matter of judicial economy,” Grove said. “Since the County Commission has already voted on it, my legal opinion is that they would have to go out and get new signatures because it is something you have already acted on.”
“The signatures on this petition are all dated from 2007 to 2008. Now we are five years later,” she said. “Is this stale? Is this too old for us to consider, and should the first step be a new petition?”
Blackmer said that the word “petition” had two meanings. The first, he said, was the physically signed petition. The second was the act of bringing the signed document to the commission. He argued that the commission had rejected this second petition, but that the integrity of the first had not been called into question.
Grove rejected this argument, saying that she saw only one meaning for petition in the state Code. “There was an order entered denying that petition, so I think we would need a new petition from the landowners,” she said.
Manuel said he worried that requiring the petitioners to gather signatures a second time would be burdensome and argued that the commission should simply re-certify the petition, after removing the names of those who had moved away since signing the document.
“That seems like a more realistic way of doing it as opposed to saying you have to start the entire petition process over again,” Manuel said. “I would not stand in the way, if the process is followed correctly, of the people of Mannings having a vote on whether or not they want to be incorporated.”
Tabb said she also had concerns about the age of the petition, but was in favor of letting residents vote for what they wanted.
Blackmer said he had given the commission a study that showed that, while some of the original signatories had moved since signing the petition, there were still enough living in the area to meet the required 30 percent of landowners. He said he thought the proper place for the commission to review such questions would be at a public hearing.
“The County Commission isn’t taking any action at all until they have the public hearing, and, at that time, as was so eloquently stated, it’s a fact-finding mission,” Blackmer said. “It will be up to the commission to decide, after further review, about the actual petition itself.”
Noland moved to schedule a public hearing in the next 30 days. The motion was seconded by Tabb. An amendment proposed by Manuel and accepted by the commission set the location of the meeting at Blue Ridge Elementary School.
Commission officials say they hope to have the meeting around April 25, but the exact date has yet to be determined.