Column – How Isle of Wight almost became a city
Published 5:43 pm Tuesday, September 27, 2022
For just under a half century, I was privileged to cover Isle of Wight and Surry counties, trying to capture for readers numerous events that affected our communities. Major advances in agriculture, droughts that destroyed crops, the mixed blessing of residential growth and the challenges that come with it, huge changes in the direction of industry, efforts to clean up polluted waterways — these and many more have shaped our corner of the commonwealth.
During those decades, no story had a greater impact, or took longer to play out, than the battle between Isle of Wight and the city of Franklin over the future of the tax-rich property occupied by the giant Union Camp paper mill.
The underlying issue was based on the structure of Virginia local government. Most states have cities and counties that overlap. The city and county play different roles and both collect taxes to pay for the services they provide. Virginia cities, however, are independent of the counties adjoining them, and historically, cities have been legally entitled to annex slices of land from neighboring counties. Once annexed, a section formerly in a county becomes irrevocably part of the city that took it, and all future taxes collected go to the city.
Using that legal structure, the city of Franklin sued Isle of Wight in 1970 to annex the industrial tract that, including Camp, was then producing 25% of all local taxes collected by Isle of Wight County. A portion of Southampton County was also targeted.
A three-judge Circuit Court panel dismissed the suit, and that decision carried with it a five-year moratorium that prevented Franklin from making another run at the county’s territory.
Isle of Wight didn’t wait for the next legal shoe to fall before it began looking at ways to make the papermill territory annexation-proof. It hired a consulting firm to look at alternatives and in time created a study commission of county residents to make a recommendation.
There weren’t many options available. Given the state’s winner-take-all annexation rules, the only sure way to inoculate a county against annexation by a neighbor was to create another city. The tiny city of Virginia Beach had merged with Princess Anne County in 1963 to form the current city of Virginia Beach. Chesapeake was also created in 1963 when Norfolk County and South Norfolk merged. Then, in 1974, Nansemond County merged with the small city of Suffolk to create present-day Suffolk.
Those mergers were designed to prevent Portsmouth and Norfolk from slicing off tax-rich portions of their neighbors’ territory.
In that environment, Isle of Wight began looking seriously at “city status” as the only sure way to protect the tax-rich land at the county’s southern tip. The need to do so was critical. In 1975, Union Camp’s tax payments to Isle of Wight County were four times greater than the combined taxes paid by Smithfield’s two packing plants. Camp’s annual tax payment to Isle of Wight was greater than the combined taxes paid to Suffolk by that city’s 17 largest industries. The paper mill’s value to the county simply could not be overstated.
In the meantime, however, the General Assembly had imposed a moratorium on the creation of new cities and of annexation by existing cities. That moratorium would be extended for decades because the legislators couldn’t come up with a plan to replace the annexation mess that Virginia’s independent city status had created.
Isle of Wight plowed ahead with tentative plans to create a city when the moratorium was lifted, as it was then expected to be. The county made plans for a citizen referendum on the question of “city status” to be held in July 1976. The Virginia attorney general threatened to intervene to block the vote, however, because, in his opinion, a vote could not be held while the moratorium was in place.
The referendum was canceled, the statewide moratorium was extended, and Isle of Wight and Franklin went into something akin to a standoff for several years. Then, in 1981, Franklin hired a law firm specializing in annexation and notified the county it was again coming after the Union Camp property but would be willing to negotiate an alternative. The ground was thus laid for the county and city to talk about sharing tax revenue in exchange for annexation immunity.
Next week: How Isle of Wight came to make annual payments to Franklin.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.