BRYAN CLARK Spirit Staff
CHARLES TOWN – Members of the Envision Jefferson 2035 steering committee told the County Commission recently that they heard an earful from residents during a number of public workshops last month.
The committee, which is charged with developing over the next two years a comprehensive plan which will guide major decisions related to growth and development during the following decade, said issues raised by those who attended the hearings included the impact on public participation by the commission’s decision to shelve the U.S. 340 Gateway plan, the power of business interests to influence planning decisions and investment in infrastructure.
According to demographers at West Virginia University, the population of Jefferson County is expected to grow by 22,000 people by 2035 – a 41 percent increse over the 2010 population.
Committee members Suzanne Malesic and Cathy Knight told commissioners their decision last year to shelve the gateway plan had alienated members of the public who had participated in its preparation.
“[Citizens] expressed doubts regarding the county commissioners support of the comprehensive plan … because they thought it was probably going to be an exercise in futility,” Malesic said. “That is something I think that is something that the commissioners need to address. The shelving of the 340 Gateway project had a far more far-reaching impact than I think the commissioners realize. That kept people home. That action nullified people’s interest.”
Commissioner Walt Pellish, who supported shelving the plan, said he disagrees that many people were alienated by the decision.
“In my opinion,” he said, “there is only a handful of people that were upset by the 340 study being set aside. I heard more people applaud that decision than I heard get upset at it.”
Malesic said there is concern among the public that “development and business interests, disproportionately, will trump out everything else, that those interests wouldn’t be considered equally [with others].”
But, Mark Dyck, also a member of the committee and president of the Jefferson County Economic Development Authority, said he did not attend any of the public input workshops, but argued that it was proper for business interests to have significant say over the direction the county develops.
“There is a concern that when companies invest in the counties they have more of a say. In some ways that is absolutely appropriate. If I come to this county with $50 million, and I invest it here, I expect to have a heck of a lot of say. If I don’t then I’m going to take my money, and I’m going to go someplace else.”
Dyck said the county should consider making strategic public investments in infrastructure to entice businesses to locate in the county.
“One of the opportunities that the county has is to look at infrastructure like an investment,” Dyck said. “I think that if you looked at spending $1 million on a sewer line, tracked the potential development that is going to occur in that area – you look at the property taxes, you look at the return to the county, you look at the return to the citizens here through spreading out sewer improvements over a larger rate base – the county could actually make money.”
Committee member Peter Fricke said many of the citizens he spoke with raised issues that support planned development.
“I think the tenor of the discussion really came down to quality of life issues like avoiding sprawl, being able to walk, and sustainability,” said Peter Fricke, a member of the committee. He explained that sustainability encompassed both environmental and employment issues.
But Pellish during an exchange with Fricke argued that there was no such thing as “sustainable” jobs.
“If you sit here and think about the major companies of 25, 30, 40 years ago, most of them are gone,” Pellish said. “You cannot anticipate what should be there in 2035.”
Fricke said he agreed to a point. “But the skills that you need to develop those changes are what you need to start developing – infrastructure, education, fiber optics,” he said.
“I would key in on education,” Pellish agreed. “That is something that we really have to concentrate on.”
Committee members and commissioners said that one topic that would have to be treated very carefully was the topic of downzoning – moving a property zoned in one way into a more restrictive class.
Commission President Dale Manuel said he would not support moves which would reduce the value of a landowner’s property.
“I don’t want people to lose value because, when we do, it’s a taking,” Manuel said. “It’s a taking of something that belongs to them: their money.”
“The biggest investment that people have in their lives,” Commissioner Patsy Noland said, “is usually what’s under their feet. I think it is important for everyone to remember that.”