MORGANTOWN – An effort is growing to give   people targeted by municipal annexation in West Virginia   a say in the process, and the opposition group formed in reaction to Morgantown’s annexation plans is ready to lead the charge.

Forced Annexation Isn’t Right Inc. (F.A.I.R.) is working to gather support for legislation to introduce next year that would revamp state law governing how municipalities can approach extending city limits.

“We’re hoping to following the trend of 46 other states who have already banned forced annexation. I think the Legislature is finally paying attention saying maybe we need to catch up and get on the ball and get rid of forced annexation,”  Kayla Cook, attorney for F.A.I.R. Inc., said Monday on WAJR’s Talk of the Town with Dave and Sarah.

The opposition group formed in reaction to the city of Morgantown’s proposal to annex 3.8 square miles, encompassing 12,380 residents, 367 businesses, thereby expanding the city’s territory by more than a third. The group is preparing to lead an effort to reform the state code and bring an end to what it terms “forced annexation.”

Just this year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 347,   ending forced annexation in the Lone Star state. Like F.A.I.R.,   a grassroots group formed in opposition to municipal annexation in Park County, Texas, helped push the bill through the Texas state legislature. States such as North Carolina and Tennessee  passed similar bills, banning forced annexation in recent years. There’s also an effort underway in Indiana to pass Senate Bill 94, which would require cities or towns to get signatures from a majority of land owners signing off on proposed  annexation.

“We would obviously be asking the legislators and bill drafters to look at what other states have done, but the main idea in what is behind all of the bills is to make it so that you can annex by getting some petition or vote but you can’t annex without the consent of the people in the additional territory,”  Cook said.

Current West Virginia law provides municipalities with three options for annexation: through vote, through petition and through a minor boundary adjustment. The first two options require direct input from freeholders in the targeted annexation area. The minor boundary adjustment only requires the approval of a municipality and the county commission. That option often ends up being a contentious annexation strategy.

Recently, Jefferson County Commissioners rejected a minor boundary adjustment request from the city of Charles Town, which was  seeking to bring approximately 2,600 acres into the city. Charles Town is now appealing the decision.

An effort to annex property through a minor boundary adjustment in Elkins has been met with resistance. Keyser   abandoned plans to request a minor boundary adjustment and now the mayor wants to put a plan to expand the city southward to a vote. Putnam County Commissioners rejected a request from the city of Winfield to annex 1,400 acres, increasing the area of the city by 15 percent, because of the groundswell of opposition.

According to Cook, there have already been communication with state lawmakers, including Sen. Mark Maynard (R-Wayne) and Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson), and work is underway to draft legislation for the 2020 regular legislative session, which starts in January.

Cook emphasized the effort is not about getting rid of municipal annexation altogether, but making certain people have a say in whether or not they are annexed.

“We understand that West Virginia needs to grow and the cities need grow, but forced annexation does not help. If you force a business to annex that doesn’t want to be annexed then they move out of the region or maybe shutdown. Giving people a say in whether or not they’re annexed is more beneficial than forcing somebody in,”  Cook said.

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