Letter: When towns do and don’t grow in population

When towns grow, particularly through an increase in population density, they can — and quite rightfully should — seek to expand. However, before an expansion is warranted, a town needs an increase in residential population above and beyond what warrants the creation of a town in the first place.

Without an adequate number of residents, there is no need to maintain separate governmental structures (town council, mayor, various town boards and offices, etc.) that cost taxpayer money — and which can be put to far better use invested in the county, from which the town population already receives most of it services.

The devolution of small towns is a symptom of our changing society. It is happening to formerly vibrant residential/commercial communities throughout this state and across the country. Over the years, through migration of population as well as increasing conversion of existing residential properties to business use, many a former viable, official town has fallen well below the qualifying conditions which are required for creating one.

When a locality loses population density to the point that it no longer meets the requirements for the creation of a town (see Virginia code 15.2-3600 and 15.2-3602); when the population left is mostly apathetic to the point that the majority no longer vote; and when the town’s prior land use and zoning decisions have permitted the number of residential properties to fall so low that the former town will never regain its legitimizing population base, then it becomes clear — at least to me — that a change is needed.

What the legislature obviously intended when they granted separate governmental privileges to a specific type of locality within another geopolitical entity — a locality with a sufficient aggregation of residents — was more efficient delivery of services. It can plainly be seen that when the population falls significantly low such a goal can more than adequately be met by the greater county structures.

Necessary services can clearly be delivered for those decreased populations at less cost. When we have a significantly smaller population, we have a very small number of individuals in a limited geographical area being afforded special governmental treatment, with powers and costs far greater than are needed for their number. It shortchanges everyone else in the greater county community.

There are a series of conditions that must be met when petitioning the courts of Virginia to obtain a town charter. The first condition for even the submission of such a petition is that a minimum of 100 signatures from the proposed town’s area be obtained. In addition, the official area must include a minimum of 1,000 residents.

What conditions do we have in the town of Washington, Va., today?

With the current population inside the platted area which defines the town being less than a 135 (and by census steadily declining) and of those, only 30 who took the time to vote in the most recent elections, we have a condition that doesn’t even come close to qualifying. It doesn’t look like Washington can possibly fulfill the legislative and judicial review requirements here.

There are seven other conditions that are required before the court will grant the application and recommend to the legislature that a town be formed — the most important of which is that the services required cannot be provided by (or through extension of) existing services already in the county where the community is located. The town of Washington isn’t going to meet close scrutiny on that one.

The town of Washington as it exists today cannot ever again meet the conditions under which the court would consider issuing a town charter. Devolution to the point of no more than 13.5 percent of the necessary population density to qualify for a charter, coupled with the wholesale conversion of former residential properties to business use means that the necessary 1,000 residents will never be present.

The county itself can, will, should and effectively does provide every service that a governmental body needs to in order to meet the needs of the existing sub-community. The county and its governing institutions exist with the town inside it, and the sub-community that is the town now already receives most of its services through them. It ultimately costs more to maintain the town’s additional, mostly redundant, institutions than it would to simply have them completely served through the county.

If better, more efficient government and delivery of its services (which meet the needs of the community, especially without adding additional tax burdens to the citizens), can be accomplished without having the additional redundant functions of a town and its attendant costs, then the community — as well as the goals of the legislature — would seem to be best met by revoking the privileges of the town. Both the community of the present town, as well as the larger community of the county, will be better served.

The bottom line: The added expense and the privileges which a charter bestows upon a separate geo-political unit like the town of Washington just are not warranted simply to service 135 residents, of which only 30 choose to vote.

T. Pagano

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