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.

because the new power plant was two miles outside the boundaries of the town, it paid no property taxes to Clover
because the new power plant was two miles outside the boundaries of the town, it paid no property taxes to Clover
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

The Old Dominion Electric Power Cooperative (ODEC) brought in workers from outside the town to build the plant. The economic benefits from construction were short-lived; when the project was completed, the temporary jobs disapeared and the construction workers left the area.

There were few local businesses to pay the extra property taxes required to pay for town services, so local landowners carried the tax burden. In 1998, residents agreed to dissolve the town and become an unincorporated area within Halifax County. One resident summed up the end of the town:3

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

the Town of Clover was located just west of the Roanoke (Staunton) River, until it unincorporated in 1998
the Town of Clover was located just west of the Roanoke (Staunton) River, until it unincorporated in 1998
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Cover 1:24,000 topographic quadrangle map (1968)

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

The Town of Brookneal in Campbell County could be next. In 2019, Residents for a Better Brookneal questioned if the town still had the tax base to support independent town services for water, sewer, and solid waste management.

Their plan was to get 100 registered voters to sign a petition for making the town just an unincoroporated part of Campbell County. The petition would be submitted to the town council, but also to the Campbell County Circuit Court in case the council took no action.

The Code of Virginia does not allow citizens the right to place a measure on the ballot for a statewide vote (initiative) after collecting enough signatures, but does allow initiative at the local level for town consolidation with a county. If 15% of registered voters in the town, or at least 100 voters, file a petition with the local circuit court(s), then the judges can appoint a committee to organize a referendum even if the town council has not taken action. The town of 1,250 residents had 659 registered voters, so the petition needed 100 signatures.

Brookneal was incorporated as a town in 1802, at a ferry crossing over the Roanoke River. The Dismal Swamp Canal was nearing completion, and batteaux could carry crops down the river to Portsmouth and Norfolk. Roughly three decades later, the Roanoke River Canal at Weldon was completed, and railroads provided outlets for Roanoke River cropds to Petersburg, Portsmouth, and Wilmington. Brookneal's future was assured when the Lynchburg and Durham Railroad built track through the town in 1887.

If the town abandoned its charter, Campbell County would become responsible for land use planning as well as providing utility services for all the residents. Altavista would become the only incorporated town remaining in Campbell County.5

the Town of Brookneal was on the Roanoke (Staunton) River
the Town of Brookneal was on the Roanoke (Staunton) River
Source: Campbell County, Parcel Data Viewer

Consolidation with Campbell County would end the role of James "Champ" Nowlin as mayor. Mayor Nowlin was elected with 63% of the vote in November 2018.

He was first elected to the town council in 1989, and served as vice mayor for 14 years until Phyllis Campbell retired after being mayor for 20 years. He became the first African-American mayor for Brookneal. If the town consolidates with the county, he would become the last mayor.6

Campbell County

Fluvanna County

Halifax County

Russell County

Virginia Cities That Have "Disappeared" - and Why

Virginia Counties That Have "Disappeared" - and Why

James Champ Nowlin  was elected as potentially the last mayor of Brookneal in 2018
James "Champ" Nowlin was elected as potentially the last mayor of Brookneal in 2018
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, 2018 November General

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)
5. "Title 15.2. Counties, Cities and Towns » Subtitle III. Boundary Adjustments and Changes of Status of Counties, Cities and Towns » Chapter 35. Consolidation of Localities » Article 2. Consolidation of Certain Counties, Cities and Towns » § 15.2-3531. Voters' petition requesting consolidation agreement and referendum," Code of Virginia, https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title15.2/chapter35/section15.2-3531/; "Group circulating petition to ask Town of Brookneal to revert to the county," The Union Star, January 23, 2019, http://www.theunionstar.com/news/article_8ad9c996-1f18-11e9-8fcb-b7fc08944a32.html; "Report ID: CP-150, Registrant Counts By District Type," Virginia Department of Elections, https://www.elections.virginia.gov/Files/Registration-Statistics/2018/01/Registrant_Count_By_Town.pdf; "Town of Brookneal," Campbell County, https://www.co.campbell.va.us/382/Town-of-Brookneal (last checked February 1, 2019)
6. "Brookneal's first African American mayor to start next year," WSET, December 14, 2018, https://wset.com/news/local/brookneal-first-african-american-mayor-to-start-next-year (last checked February 1, 2019)


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