Virginia Towns That Have "Disappeared" - and Why

by 2016, the Town of Columbia was clearly in fiscal distress
by 2016, the Town of Columbia was clearly in fiscal distress

Since 1997, three towns in Virginia have relinquished their municipal charters and become unincorporated parts of the surrounding county.

Castlewood in Russell County obtained a town charter from the General Assembly in 1991. Residents anticipated that incorporating, establishing a town government, would speed up construction of a sewer system and attract industries that would replace the jobs being lost in the coalfields. Virginia's most recent town (Clinchco incorporated in 1990) was also its second-largest, encompassing 8,900 acres. Only Blacksburg was bigger in size.

Property owners and businesses had to pay new real estate taxes, personal property taxes, and Business and Professional Occupancy (BPOL) taxes for the costs of a town hall, with a mayor and six members of town council. The town bought two police cruisers, and the new town police officers issued more speeding tickets to local residents than the state police who had visited only intermittently.

It soon became clear that the costly sewer extension could not be financed by the new town, despite extra revenue from taxes and speeding tickets. In 1996, the 2,800 residents elected a town council committed to putting itself out of business. The new town council quickly shut down the police department.

In 1997, residents voted to abolish the town government and return to the status of an unincorporated community within Russell County. It was the first "unincorporation" of a Virginia town. One successful candidate in that election said:1

There is nothing that being a town will benefit me or my children in any way during our lifetimes... Being a town won't bring the coal mining back.

Clover, in Halifax County, was the second town in Virginia to revert to being an unincorporated community. Clover had incorporated in 1895. When Henrietta Lacks grew up there, it was a sleepy and traditionally-segregated place in Southside Virginia:2

Clover's wide, dusty Main Street was full of Model A's, and wagons pulled by mules and horses... Main Street had a movie theater, bank, jewelry store, doctor’s office, hardware store, and several churches. When the weather was good, white men with suspenders, top hats, and long cigars – everyone from mayor to doctor to undertaker – stood along Main Street sipping whiskey from juice bottles, talking, or playing checkers on the wooden barrel in front of the pharmacy.

Clover residents had hoped that construction of the coal-fired Clover Power Station in 1995 would revitalize the town. The power plant was outside the town boundaries, so the facility did not boost property taxes to support town services. The Old Dominion Electric Power Cooperative (ODEC) brought in workers from outside the town to build the plant, and the economic benefits from construction were short-lived.

There were few local businesses to pay the extra property taxes required to pay for town services, local residents agreed to dissolve the town in 1998. As one put it:3

We hoped that (the plant) was going to bring people into town, and build the town up. But it didn't do it.

Columbia in Fluvanna County relinquished its charter and become just an unincorporated part of Fluvanna County in 2016, the last time a Virginia town gave up its status.

Business activity had declined after Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad passenger trains quit stopping in Columbia in 1958, and then I-64 bypassed the town in the 1960's. Hurricane Camille in 1969, Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and Hurricane Juan in 1985 caused major floods that severely damaged numerous buildings.

The town's tax base deteriorated, annual tax revenues dropped to below $4,000 per year, and outdated land use ordinances made the town vulnerable to uncontrolled and inappropriate development. A consensus emerged that the cost of maintaining a legally-separate town government, with insurance for town hall and updated ordinances, was simply too high:4

Members of the all-volunteer government say residents are paying higher taxes for far worse government services than residents of Fluvanna. Fixing the situation would cost far more money than the town could possibly raise...

the Town of Columbia survived from 1788 until 2016
the Town of Columbia survived from 1788 until 2016
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Virginia Cities That Have "Disappeared" - and Why

Virginia Counties That Have "Disappeared" - and Why

Links

References

1. "Va. Town Abolishes Government," Washington Post, November 6, 1997, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/longterm/library/election97/town.htm; Liliokanaio Peaslee, Nicholas J. Swartz, Virginia Government: Institutions and Policy, CQ Press, 2013, p.138, https://books.google.com/books?id=210XBAAAQBAJ; "City Council Tries to End Its Existence," Los Angeles Times, November 2, 1997, http://articles.latimes.com/1997/nov/02/news/mn-49320 (last checked May 22, 2017)
2. Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Broadway Paperbacks, 2011, p.22, https://books.google.com/books?id=aOpAx3-czwIC (last checked May 22, 2017)
3. "A Tale of Two Cities and The Broken Promise of Coal," Bay Daily, April 6, 2010, http://cbf.typepad.com/bay_daily/2010/04/my-entry-2.html (last checked May 22, 2017)
4. "Fluvanna town may give up the ghost," Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 31, 2014, http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/local/central-virginia/fluvanna-town-may-give-up-the-ghost/article_2b2918c3-1721-50dc-9842-95c123e487a2.html (last checked October 15, 2014)


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