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Annexation laws are self-defeating

BY HOWARD OWEN

BUSINESS EDITOR

Every so often, something comes along to remind us of just how self-defeating Virginia’s annexation laws and independent cities system can be.

The latest: After years of haggling over when and where to build a new baseball stadium in Richmond, the latest plan has risen from the dead. It was first proposed in 2003. It was a dumb idea then and is a dumb idea now.

The plan is to build a stadium in Shockoe Bottom, a pop fly from a part of Interstate 95 near its junction with I–64 that already gets snarled with a combination of city traffic and out-of-state travelers who somehow don’t know about I–295.

If it does get built, the traffic might resemble a bench-clearing brawl.

And it’s happening because the city and the counties that surround it can’t agree on much of anything. And, in Virginia, they don’t have to agree on much of anything.

In most states, cities are part of counties and have some ability to annex. Not here.

When The Diamond was built in 1985, on a site where professional baseball has been played since 1954, Richmond and Chesterfield and Henrico counties provided half the money. The most sensible plan this time seemed to be for regional cooperation to drive the construction of a new stadium next to the old one, which was built fast and cheap and grew old before its time.

But regional cooperation isn’t happening, so the city is pinning its hopes on the Bottom. Land around the proposed new stadium would be developed by someone who sees a chance to make a buck or two off the deal.

A crowd of 10,000 descending on Shockoe Bottom will turn I–95 through Richmond into Occoquan southbound on a summer Friday afternoon.

In almost any other state, this wouldn’t be such a big problem. The city of Richmond would be multiple times the size it is now, incorporating suburban areas (and their tax base) over the years. And, when it came time to replace a baseball stadium or arts center or other facility serving the entire metro area, only one large locality would have to vote on it. Several competing, fractious entities wouldn’t have to simultaneously agree. And the pain would be spread out over a larger population so that no one felt an unbearable pinch.

That locality would have come up with the money to build the new stadium in the most logical place for all its residents (right next to where The Diamond is right now). It would not have to depend on a group that is motivated mostly by profit—traffic and other problems be damned.

In Virginia, though, grievances petty and otherwise make cities and surrounding counties adversaries, working against rather than with each other.

The constricted nature of the state’s cities makes any kind of major venture difficult if money is involved. It’s no accident that Norfolk metro area is the largest in the country without a major-league sports team, for instance.

There seems to be an element in Virginia that just doesn’t like cities. Over time, the deck appears to have been stacked against urban centers. And the more the cities are hemmed in and marginalized, the more reasons those sitting outside the city limits find to not like them.

It leads to some unfortunate decisions that, whatever your philosophy, can be bad for the whole area.

For instance, a perfectly good spot for a ballpark, easily accessible with the space for parking already there, is ditched for something less sensible.

In 1959, North Carolina changed its annexation laws to let cities annex unincorporated areas without residents’ approval. There is a fight going on now to undo that law, because nobody wants to be told what to do in the land of the free, but here is the effect:

In 1960, Richmond’s population was 219,958. Charlotte’s was 201,564.

In 2010, Richmond’s population had shrunk to 204,214. Charlotte’s had risen to 731,424.

Charlotte has a National Football League team and a National Basketball Association team.

Richmond is struggling to get a minor-league baseball stadium built so it can keep the Double-A team that replaced the Triple-A team it lost while it and the counties nattered about how to update or replace The Diamond.

And people on the other side of the city limit sign shake their heads and wonder why “those people” in the city can’t get their act together.

Business Editor Howard Owen writes this biweekly column on business and the economy. He canbe reached at 540/374-5539 or howen@freelancestar.com

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/business/2012/08/03/annexation-laws-are-self-defeating/

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