by 2016, the Town of Columbia was clearly in fiscal distress
Between 1997-2016, three towns in Virginia relinquished their municipal charters and became unincorporated parts of the surrounding county. In 2022, the charter for the town of St. Charles was terminated, and the General Assembly gave the town of Pound a year to reform local government or have the town dissolved.
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
Castlewood was an incorporated town for just six years
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
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 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
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 disappeared 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
the Town of Clover was located just west of the Roanoke (Staunton) River, until it unincorporated in 1998
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Clover 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 Town of Columbia survived from 1788 until 2016
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.
by 2016, several structures in Columbia were dilapidated
Columbia in 2016
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. The vote in November, 2015 to relinquish the town charter was 18-1 in favor of abandoning the status as a town. A consensus had emerged that the cost was too high to maintain a legally-separate town government with insurance for town hall and a requirement to update ordinances:4
the vote in 2015 was 18-1 in favor of ending the status of Columbia as a town
The Town of Brookneal has considered abandoning its charter and becoming an unincorporated community within Campbell County. 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 unincorporated 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 crops 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
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 had consolidated with the county, he would have become the last mayor.6
James "Champ" Nowlin was elected as potentially the last mayor of Brookneal in 2018
Source: Virginia Department of Elections, 2018 November General
the Town of Brookneal is located near the junction of the Falling River (mislabelled as "Roanoke River" in GoogleMaps in 2022) and the Staunton/Roanoke River
In 2021, the Town Council of Mineral considered dropping its charter. The Louisa County town had started as Tolersville in 1890, but chose the name Mineral when incorporating in 1902. The town was not in debt; there was no urgency to consolidate with the county. However, a 3-2 majority of the Town Council voted to start the discussion with Louisa County because the value of staying as a town and paying extra town taxes was not clear. Mineral's only unique service was to contract for trash pickup services for all residents. The town's water system was already dependent upon water from the Louisa County Water Authority.
One member of Town Council stated:7
After feedback from residents in Mineral, members of Town Council quickly ended their exploration of cancelling the charter. The council unanimously passed a motion to rescind its earlier vote to initiate dropping the charter. However, one of the advocates in thatr earlier vote still commented:8
At the same time, Crozet residents considered becoming a new town. Albemarle County began updating the Crozet Master Plan in 2019. By 2021, dissatisfaction with the draft led to proposals for Crozet to gain control over local land use planning by becoming a town. At the time, Scottsville was the only town within Albemarle County.
Residents would still pay taxes and vote for Albemarle County officials, but creating a town would shift planning and zoning responsibilities to a Crozet Town Council. That could block the county from designating any areas within town boundaries for Middle Density Residential, a category which could result in housing density as high as 18 units/acre.9
In 2022, the towns of Pound and St. Charles were on track to lose their charters. The decline of coal severance tax revenue stressed the ability to maintain town services. Census statistics document population decline since 'coal was king" in 1950. The number of people living in Pound declined from 1,118 in 1950 to 877 in 2020. Coal mining was mechanized and the total demand dropped. In addition, completion of the US 23 bypass around town in the 1960's reduced the opportunity for travelers to eat and shop in town, and adjacent Kentucky counties began to allow local alcohol sales.10
Route 23 now bypasses the Town of Pound
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
St. Charles in Lee County had been created in 1914 by order of the Circuit Court. It was one of 37 Virginia towns created by the judiciary rather than through the General Assembly. In 1914, there were 300 residents and it was clear the mining community was growing. In the 1950 Census, there were 550 residents.
Residents prepared to relinquish the charter because population had declined 43% since 2010. In 2020, there were only 73 people living within the boundaries of St. Charles.
The only two businesses left in town in 2022 were the St. Charles Community Health Clinic and an adjacent black lung clinic. In the 2016 election for town council, Only 47 ballots were cast for the six seats. In the race for mayor, the winner got eight votes. However, no one sworn into office. In 2018 and 2020, no one ran for any seats and no one cast a write-in ballot.
No officials were in place to receive revenue due to the town from sales and utility taxes. No taxes were collected because there were no town officials, and the utility turned off the street lights after no one paid electricity bills for two years. The obvious solution was to dissolve the Town of St. Charles and make it an unincorporated part of Lee County again. The General Assembly passed legislation in 2022 (SB 589 and HB 83) to terminate the charter, specifying that:11
the population in the Town of St. Charles declined as the production of coal dropped
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
In 2021, state officials required Pound to transfer its water and sewer system to Wise County after the town failed to meet water quality regulations with wastewater discharges. The release of untreated sewage violated a consent order which had been signed in 2016 after previous problems had been documented. The town had planned for a Federal/state grant to fund the necessary wastewater upgrades, and obtained a $400,000 loan to begin engineering studies. Embezzlement by an employee and failure to complete annual audits blocked the option of getting a grant. When Pound stopped making its loan payments, the town's bank account was frozen.
The Attorney General's office warned that Pound faced up to $30 million in penalties unless the system was transferred to the Wise County Public Service Authority. After the transfer, the county raised rates to fund deferred maintenance on the system.
Pound was politically dysfunctional. The mayor had been elected in 2020, and she had been the only candidate on the ballot - but another candidate received the same number of votes in a write-in campaign, and a name was drawn out of a hat to determine the winner. After that process, the town council refused to follow precedent and appoint her as town manager.
That rejection was designed to keep her in just a ceremonial role as mayor, except for casting tie-breaking votes. The council then locked the mayor out of town hall, and three of the five members signed a petition asking for the Circuit Court to remove her from office. The court declined the request.
the Town of Pound developed along the Pound River
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The Town Council fired its attorney with the mayor casting the tie-breaking vote in a 3-2 decision, and disbanded the police department. State officials then required Pound to hire a temporary police chief in order to comply with state mandates for protecting the evidence room.
With no attorney, no town manager, and no town clerk, most town operations ceased. There were three vacancies on the five-member town council at the end of 2021. One member had refused to attend meetings and prevented a quorum which would allow for conducting official business, and he finally resigned at the end of 2021 in what he called a "kamikaze" effort to force the chief judge in the Circuit Court to appoint people to fill the vacant positions.
The Majority Leader in the House of Delegates, Terry Kilgore from nearby Gate City, responded to what he called a "hot mess." He filed a bill in the legislature to revoke the town charter, saying:12
When 2022 General Assembly considered a bill to revoke the charter of "The Pound," there was a community reaction. The mayor and one remaining council member petitioned the local court to appoint three new members to the Town Council, so it would have enough for a quorum and could take official votes.
In March, 2022, the Lee County Circuit Court appointed three new council members to join the remaining two members plus the mayor. One of the two remaining members had travelled to the General Assembly to ask that Pound residents be given time to correct the issues before the charter was revoked. In response, the legislature passed a charter revocation act but postponed action until Nov. 1, 2023, giving the town an opportunity to establish effective government operations again.
The member of the Pound Town Council was successful in her request to the legislators:13
However, as a sign of the local disfunction, one of the court's appointees immediately declined to take the seat. He had been a former mayor and town manager, and had signed the petition attempting to recall the current mayor. He had not applied for the position, but a member of town council had suggested his name and the judges chose him without determining his level of interest.14
The court quickly appointed a replacement. In March 2022, three months after the last Town Council meeting, a full set of Town Council members unanimously approved a 10-point agreement with the Virginia Municipal League that required being polite and professional with each other, saying that the members:15
Despite the efforts to restore standard governing procedures, the drama in Pound continued. In May, 2022, the town mayor resigned during a Town council meeting. She announced her resignation was effective immediately, eight months before her term was to end, saying:16
the Town of Brookneal evolved at a ferry crossing over the Roanoke River
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
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; "2015 - Fluvanna County," Virginia Department of Elections, https://historical.elections.virginia.gov/ballot_questions/view/2777/ (last checked January 8, 2020)
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 - Section 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)
7. "Town of Mineral considers dissolving," The Central Virginian, July 15, 2021, https://www.thecentralvirginian.com/news/town-of-mineral-considers-dissolving/article_e5504514-e4b7-11eb-a145-379dd4d1679b.html (last checked July 16, 2021)
8. "Mineral ends talk of anulling charter," The Central Virginian, August 13, 2021, https://www.thecentralvirginian.com/news/mineral-ends-talk-of-anulling-charter/article_5571348e-fad4-11eb-a5af-97dc7669aa81.html (last checked August 30, 2021)
9. "Talk of making Crozet a town continues," Daily Progress, August 28, 2021, https://dailyprogress.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/talk-of-making-crozet-a-town-continues/article_cb5b07a0-084a-11ec-bab3-b7803d6c083e.html (last checked August 31, 2021)
10. "'We ask for the opportunity to prove ourselves’'," Cardinal News, March 4, 2022, https://cardinalnews.org/2022/03/04/we-ask-for-the-opportunity-to-prove-ourselves/; "Population of Virginia, By Counties," Census Bureau, August 10, 1950, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1950/pc-02/pc-2-07.pdf, "2020 Census Data For Virginia - Total Population for Towns," weldon Cooper Center, University of Virginia, https://demographics.coopercenter.org/census2020 (last checked March 4, 2022)
11. "Town of Pound faces police and wastewater issues," Bristol Herald-Courier, May 23, 2021, https://heraldcourier.com/news/town-of-pound-faces-police-and-wastewater-issues/article_771214a7-9181-52b2-8993-bf7c7ca92eed.html; "'I can't make the town stay there," Cardinal News, January 26, 2022, https://cardinalnews.org/2022/01/26/i-cant-make-the-town-stay-there/; "HB 904 Pound, Town of; repealing Charter," 2022 Session, General Assembly, Virginia Legislative Information System, https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?221+sum+HB904; "HB 83 St. Charles, Town of; termination of township," General Assembly, Virginia Legislative Information System, 2022 General Session, https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?221+sum+HB83; "SB 589 St. Charles, Town of; termination of township," General Assesmbly, Virginia Legislative Information System, 2022 General Session, https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?221+sum+SB589 (last checked March 11, 2022)
12. "Town of Pound faces police and wastewater issues," Bristol Herald-Courier, May 23, 2021, https://heraldcourier.com/news/town-of-pound-faces-police-and-wastewater-issues/article_771214a7-9181-52b2-8993-bf7c7ca92eed.html; "Editorial: Virginia should dissolve charter for town of Pound," Times News, January 20, 2022, https://www.timesnews.net/opinion/editorials/editorial-virginia-should-dissolve-charter-for-town-of-pound/article_cc0c8902-794d-11ec-84c6-e30a164a7c15.html; "Southwest 'really flexed its muscle this year,'" Cardinal News, March 14, 2022, https://cardinalnews.org/2022/03/14/southwest-really-flexed-its-muscle-this-year/ (last checked March 14, 2022)
13. "'We ask for the opportunity to prove ourselves'," Cardinal News, March 4, 2022, https://cardinalnews.org/2022/03/04/we-ask-for-the-opportunity-to-prove-ourselves/; "Pound charter bill headed to governor's desk as council members appointed," Kingsport TimesNews, March 4, 2022, https://www.timesnews.net/news/local-news/pound-charter-bill-headed-to-governor-s-desk-as-council-members-appointed/article_bbf1fd94-9b45-11ec-9fef-13e7e0fbe467.html (last checked March 5, 2022)
14. "Newly appointed Pound council member declines seat," Cardinal News, March 4, 2022, https://cardinalnews.org/2022/03/04/newly-appointed-pound-council-member-declines-seat/ (last checked March 5, 2022)
15. "And then there were five: Judges finalize Pound council lineup," TimesNews, March 15, 2022, https://www.timesnews.net/news/local-news/and-then-there-were-five-judges-finalize-pound-council-lineup/article_37239aec-a3fa-11ec-9c73-ff5aa9216463.html; "Second chance: Pound council starts with new lineup, commitment to get expert help," Johnson City Press, March 16, 2022, https://www.johnsoncitypress.com/news/appalachian_highlands/second-chance-pound-council-starts-with-new-lineup-commitment-to-get-expert-help/article_7842c7cd-1a45-574a-83c8-17fa1b1520cb.html (last checked March 1, 2022)
16. "Pound, Va. Mayor Stacey Carson resigns 'effective immediately'," WJHL, May 24, 2022, https://www.wjhl.com/news/local/pound-va-mayor-stacey-carson-resigns-effective-immediately/; "Pound mayor resigns," Kingsport Times News, May 25, 2022, https://www.timesnews.net/news/pound-mayor-resigns/article_b8c2d20a-dbc4-11ec-9253-b763a705177b.html (last checked May 26, 2022)