A consultant who specializes in local government presented information on how Crozet might become an incorporated town at the Crozet Community Association (CCA) meeting September 9. Drew Williams, CEO of the Berkley Group in Harrisonburg, was invited to address the group about the pros and cons of becoming a town after Crozet Community Advisory Committee (CCAC) member Sandra Hausman suggested the meeting in August. The Berkley Group employs about 40 consultants who specialize in guiding the administration and organization of small local governments across Virginia.
Williams began by explaining that any defined community that was not a city and had a population of 1,000 or more prior to 1971 was considered a town by the state. Since that point, a community seeking to become a town must petition the state and satisfy several broad requirements including a 100-signature petition and clearly defined proposed boundaries. “Towns must have a town council that is popularly elected, and the county would still provide many services in most cases, to include schools, courts, social services, and a Sheriff’s department,” said Williams.
“The Code of Virginia section 15.2 is really the ‘bible’ for what localities can and cannot do,” he said, “and some responsibilities that a town could take on include police power, utility provision such as water and sewer, land use regulations, zoning ordinances, and taxing ability. Towns greater than 3,500 people are required to maintain their own streets and roads and provide for snow removal, tall grass and weeds maintenance, prohibition of hunting in some areas, and regulating cemeteries.”
To balance these types of expenses, Williams said that a “menu” of taxation sources of revenue is available for towns, most of which would be assessed on top of existing county taxes such as real estate tax. “This is not an exhaustive list, but a town could impose [its own] real estate tax, personal property tax, meals tax, sales tax, consumer utility tax, business license tax, vehicle license tax, and cigarette tax.” He stressed that using any of these options would require a community to first agree on its goals and required level of government to achieve them.
“Soliciting community support for town status is probably the number one priority that would need to occur to advance the [town] idea,” he said. “The community would need to be active and engaged, and would have to work with its elected state delegation to support the proposal at the state legislature [where it would have to be passed into law by the entire body]. It does take time and money to be able to do these things.”
Before reaching the legislature, an alternative path to becoming a town is to submit a petition to the local circuit court to request town status, but ultimately in either case the request ends up in the hands of the “Commission on Local Government,” a state agency consisting of five members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. This Commission is charged with deciding whether the community (Crozet) has made the case that it its governing county (Albemarle) is unable to provide required services, and that the “general good” of the community will be promoted by the incorporation.
“Crozet would have to define very carefully its boundary area, and figure out what services the town would, and must, provide, and how those translate into taxing ability to pay for it,” said Williams. “Is it palatable to be paying additional taxes on top of those that you’re already paying to the county? What’s the desire, the willingness, the overall sentiment in the community? Make sure that decisions are based on facts and not emotion, and your path is based on sound reason and not just how you’re feeling today or tomorrow.”
Williams noted that few localities have become towns, and none in the past 30 years. (The last community to become a town, Castlewood in Russell County in 1991, dissolved its town charter in 1997.) “We really have more people reverting from cities to towns or towns back to unincorporated communities these days,” he said. “Recently the town of Columbia in Fluvanna County gave up its charter. It’s definitely historic, to even be talking about [becoming a town].”
After Williams’ remarks, the floor was opened up for questions, and Hausman asked about revenues. “Yes, it’s conceivable that we’d pay higher taxes, but we may not, given that the community is so much larger and there would be other sources of revenue,” she said. “That’s what I don’t know—how significant could those revenues be?”
“That’s one of the challenges,” said Williams. “You’d have to figure out what are the services that the town would provide and what is the cost to provide them, then figure out who would pay that bill [in terms of taxation]. That would take a pretty significant amount of analysis and review. Those are the answers that I can’t give you tonight.”
When pressed by David Mitchell to say what kind of fee the Berkley Group might charge for such an analysis, Williams declined to name a figure. “We’re kind of in uncharted territory,” he said. “This is not something that we do every day, because this doesn’t happen every day. It would take some time and effort, but I don’t know how much it would cost to do these things.”
Williams encouraged Crozet residents to remember that town status would not necessarily resolve existing issues over land use that the community has been grappling with during its recent Master Plan update process. “It’s not like if you become a town, you start all over again with a blank slate,” he said. “Crozet is a designated growth area with existing zoning rights, as well as approved plans that haven’t yet been constructed with vested rights. Town status doesn’t make those go away. You’d need to have community consensus to develop a new land use map that is well documented and legally defensible, so you’re not facing numerous lawsuits right out of the gate.”
Hausman said she’d still like to explore the idea further, perhaps by using grants to cover the cost of preliminary planning. “Just throwing up our hands and saying it’s going to be expensive and a hassle is not very productive,” she said. “Obviously it’s not something that would happen overnight—it would happen over a period of five to ten years, is my guess, and by that time of course you’d have a lot more development. Drew, I think you should talk to your partners and see what they would charge for a preliminary assessment of revenue sources and costs, but that’s my two cents.”
An in-depth investigation of the pros and cons of Crozet town status can be found in the Gazette’s March 2021 issue.