Organizational heads and governmental leaders are weighing in on the possible annexation of the 10,600-acre Summit Bechtel Family Scout Reserve by the town of Mount Hope, balancing enthusiasm with caution.

When it comes to planning and zoning issues, the majority recommend pursuing a partnership between the town and the county.

Executive Director of the West Virginia Municipal League Lisa Dooley sees “no disadvantage” to the annexation.

“It sounds like it is the best of both worlds for both parties considered,” she says.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, who helped rewrite the state’s planning and zoning law, also believes that if the Summit and the town want annexation, then “it should be viewed favorably,” with one caveat.

Though he says he firmly believes in the Boy Scouts of America’s (BSA) quality of work and has no reservations about their overall credibility, he says it would be wise for Mount Hope to reach out for advice and expertise from other entities.

“As Mount Hope works through this, I think it’s important that they pull from the expertise both of the Fayette County Planning Commission and the county commission itself, as well as the state development office,” he says. “Just from the perspective of Mount Hope as a smaller city, I would assume they are negotiating with an entity that has more expertise than they do. That’s not a criticism — it’s the reality of dealing with a world-class entity.”

He advises soliciting advice on how to “get the biggest bang for the buck,” establish an advantageous relationship with the BSA that will last into the future and support state and county planning efforts.

“I would think the Summit and the Boy Scouts would embrace such a broad-based perspective,” he says.

Fayette County Commission President Matthew Wender says Mount Hope “is at the door step of ... “a cannot miss opportunity.”

But he, like McCabe, encourages communication about expectations.

“I trust there will be a serious and issue-specific dialogue between the administration of the city and the BSA about the future expectations of each — both financial and logistical,” he says.

Patricia Hamilton, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Counties, calls the move “unprecedented.”

“This sort of move by a very small town with a large tract of land, the development of which has state-wide implications, is unprecedented,” she says.

The nearest comparison comes from Jefferson County, when the city of Ranson tripled its size through a series of annexations of a residential housing development, says Hamilton.

Some alleged that the developer pursued annexation in order to avoid the county’s planning and development code. In the case of the Summit, similar concerns have been raised.

Typically in West Virginia, municipalities have more planning and zoning regulations than counties, so annexing into a city would normally mean more rules instead of less. Not so in the case of Fayette County versus Mount Hope — instead, the opposite is true.

Fayette was the first county in the state to adopt zoning regulations, back in the 1960s, and is still only one of three counties with any rules on the books, says Michael Daugherty of the West Virginia Planning Association. He says the county has a “different attitude” from others when it comes to zoning.

Mount Hope, on the other hand, has a much less detailed zoning ordinance that is rarely used or enforced. Therefore, the BSA would face fewer rules from the municipality than the county.

“In this case, you’re comparing a professional planning staff at the county level with Mount Hope, which can’t even be comparable to the resources the county would have,” says Hamilton.

But McCabe says the comparison to Jefferson County’s annexation controversy doesn’t hold water.

“I view this as a very different situation than that in the sense that the Bechtel Summit is conceived and is being planned and implemented at an extremely high level, very sensitive to infrastructure needs and the impact of the community and state around it,” he says. “You’re not comparing apples to apples and I think it’s important to realize who is coming to the table.”

Others say that because the Summit already has quite open-ended land use rules under the county’s unified development code — the list of roughly two dozen possible uses runs the gamut from camping to a supervised firearms range — the annexation wouldn’t have much impact.

“What’s the difference between an open-ended (county) plan that lets them do anything they want and being in a city that lets them do just about anything they want?” says Dooley. “With such a minimal zoning plan, it sounds to me like six of one and one half dozen of the other.”

But Daugherty, of the West Virginia Planning Association, cautions the town of Mount Hope to “think it through.”

He sees three basic options for the city when it comes to planning. First, it could simply keep its existing zoning ordinance. Or, it could “join up with the county’s planning process,” which means the county’s unified development code would govern Mount Hope. Finally, it could adopt a new zoning ordinance that mimics the language of the county’s current zoning for the Summit.

Daugherty says the Summit is a special type of development that deserves unique consideration.

“It’s almost as if you’re going to ask them what they want to do with it and write the rules to allow that, and then if they want to do something different, they come to you and you change the rules,” he says.

“I view this (possible annexation) as a win-win, but the devil’s in the details,” says McCabe. “Fayette County is in an enviable position of having a better unified development ordinance than many counties in West Virginia. They have a significant amount of expertise and I would hope the county and Mount Hope would work hand in hand.”

Dooley knows of several municipalities that share their zoning officers, and says that if she were in a leadership position in Mount Hope, she would likely pursue an intergovernmental agreement with the county to make sure planning was “uniform.”

“What would be great is if the county would share their officer and the city could pay them for it. If the county wants to make sure things are working in tandem, they could go to the city and offer their services and try to strike up an agreement,” she says.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com

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