Annexation deal leaves county powerless

Shenandoah County remains powerless as Mount Jackson considers a controversial annexation proposal.

Town Council could vote in the coming weeks on a request to add 576 acres in the county as part of an effort by owners to create a potential industrial “mega site” in the corporate limits.

An agreement reached in 2001 between the town and county lets Mount Jackson add land from certain areas identified in the deal. The agreement provides guidelines but gives the county and its elected leaders little to no power to stop the town from annexing land.

Several members of the Board of Supervisors this week acknowledged they’ve heard concerns expressed by their constituents about the proposed annexation. But supervisors acknowledged that the agreement – reached years before they joined the board – ties their hands.

The request by Robert Whitehurst Jr. and Eleanor Whitehurst drew vocal opposition from neighbors who fear development of the agricultural property into an industrial site could negatively impact the area. Many opponents say they’ve been left out of the process because they live in the county and not in the town.

District 2 Supervisor Steven Baker said Tuesday the property lies in the area identified for future town growth. Baker’s district includes Mount Jackson and the surrounding area.

“It’s not a county decision,” Baker said. “That’s a town decision right now and I think there’s a lot of questions that’s going to have to be answered.”

Baker noted the difference between annexing and rezoning the property, the latter of which should spur a look at the bigger picture. The owners have indicated a desire to rezone the property, if annexed, from agricultural to light industrial use. Baker pointed out that, depending on the use of the property, the infrastructure, including roads and utilities, would require improvements.

“A lot of information has got to be gathered on this, plain and simple, to be able to make a good decision,” Baker said.

Asked about the possibility that the property could change from farmland to an industrial site, Baker pointed out that the county is mainly agricultural.

“We want to remain an agricultural county and that many acres, that’s pretty huge,” Baker said. “A lot of things have to line up before it looks like you can make a decision to go another avenue.”

District 1 Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese also commented on the county’s inability to influence the annexation decision.

“I guess really it was decided 10, 12 years ago when they did the agreement with the county that all they have to do is like a resolution-type to bring it in,” Neese said. “I’d like to have seen if they had some idea of what was going to go in there before, but there’s nothing we can do about that.”

The supervisors have heard from their constituents about the annexation.

“I’ve heard from some of the neighbors and I tried to explain to them how it was done, you know, with the agreement years ago,” Neese said. “I hate to see farmland go away but, like I say, it was approved years ago.”

Chairman David Ferguson, who represents District 3, concurred that the annexation request now is in the town’s hands. But he urged the town to take its time on the request.

“I have not had any of my constituents call me with a great deal of concern,” Ferguson said. “They do express their opinions, some who want to see a site so that it would foster industrial development and help improve the economy, create jobs and hopefully add to the tax base.”

“I’ve also heard from individuals who are concerned that a site that size would take away from the rural environment of that area and create unnecessary demands on governmental services, such as schools, roads and housing,” Ferguson added. “I’ve heard it from both sides. That’s why I really feel the town needs to move slowly. They need to do their due diligence. They need to listen not only to the town residents but they need to listen to the county residents who step forward at their meetings as well because it’s not only going to impact the town, it’s going to impact the entire county.”

Ferguson questioned the annexation deal and the county’s lack of power under the agreement.

“It may have been an unintended consequence of the agreements when the agreements were initiated, and at the time it may have been a legitimate approach to annexation,” Ferguson said. “In today’s environment, I don’t think it would be an appropriate approach.”

Ferguson said the agreement between the county and New Market that outlines the town’s potential growth areas takes into account the interests of residents of both localities.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com