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Western Maryland counties seek refuge in West Virginia

Map Courtesy/district.org Representatives of Garrett, Allegany, and Washington counties in Maryland would like to see those counties join West Virginia in the near future.

CHARLESTON – Several state lawmakers in neighboring Maryland reached out across the border last week seeking to bring their counties over to West Virginia.

Representatives of Legislative District 1, consisting of Garrett, Allegany, and Washington counties, and two members of the Washington County delegation wrote two letters dated Oct. 14 to Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, expressing interest in their counties joining West Virginia.

“We, the undersigned…request that you consider adding us as constituent counties to the State of West Virginia,” stated one of the two letters. “We believe this arrangement may be mutually beneficial for both states and for our local constituencies. Please advise on next steps.”

The letters were signed by State Sen. George Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington; and Delegates Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett/Allegany; Jason Buckel, R-Allegany; Mike McKay, R-Alleghany/Washington; and William Wivell, R-Washington.

When asked by phone Thursday why the lawmakers want to see their counties leave Maryland, Beitzel asked “Do you have two days?”

“The western areas of the state feel they’re being shortchanged in a lot of respects, and we had a lot of constituents approaching us…saying ‘why can’t we just join West Virginia?’ It’s just that simple,” Beitzel said.

Garrett, Allegany, and Washington counties border the northern part of West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, stretching along Preston, Grant, Mineral, Hampshire, Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties. The three Maryland counties have a combined 251,617 in population according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

Allegany County is home to Cumberland, while Washington County is home to Hagerstown. If Allegany and Washington counties were added to the state, Hagerstown and Cumberland would be in the top 10 of largest cities in West Virginia.

This isn’t the first time some in Maryland’s western counties have considered breaking off from their state. The Washington Post reported in 2013 about the Western Maryland Initiative, a movement to break off Garrett, Allegany, Washington, Caroll, and Frederick counties to form its own state.

However, breaking up is hard to do, as West Virginia well knows being the only state to successfully leave another state. The U.S. Constitution has a process for parts of states to leave their states, known as the Admission Clause

“New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”

Beitzel said the first step was seeing if there was any interest in West Virginia for Garrett, Allegany, and Washington counties to join the Mountain State. The next step will be trying to get a referendum on the 2022 ballots to gauge the interest of citizens in those counties to join West Virginia. If the interest is there, both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly would have to approve in a majority vote, followed by a vote in Congress.

“It would be very difficult to accomplish that,” Beitzel said. “It’s a long process…the first thing before we would do anything as legislators from this region of Maryland as far as looking at the possibility of going into West Virginia is making sure West Virginia would be willing to take us.”

In conversations and statements from West Virginia lawmakers Thursday, the interest is indeed there.

“Speaker Hanshaw says this is an introductory step in what would be a somewhat lengthy process, but we certainly would welcome any of our border counties that see West Virginia is a thriving and growing part of our nation’s economy with the greatest quality of life anywhere in the country,” said Ann Ali, communications director for the House of Delegates.

“I welcome my friends and my neighbors who live in those three counties,” Blair said by phone Thursday afternoon. Blair’s senatorial district is across the border from Washington County, where his wife also works. “I think it is a recognition of what we’ve been doing in this state. Low unemployment, greater job opportunities, lower taxes. There’s been a lot of great things going on in this state. They see that.”

House Speaker Pro Tempore Gary Howell, R-Mineral, represents a district across from both Washington and Allegany counties. He said those counties have more in common with West Virginia than Maryland.

“We would welcome these counties in Maryland to join West Virginia,” Howell said by phone. “These counties are more like West Virginia than the remainder of Maryland. You compare Garrett County to Preston County. They border each other and are very similar. Allegany County is very similar to Mineral County, and Washington County is very similar to Berkeley County. There’s a lot of synergy and cross-border activity…I think they would be a very good fit for West Virginia.”

During the 2020 legislative session, Republican lawmakers and Gov. Jim Justice extended invitations to Frederick County and other Virginia counties to join West Virginia through resolutions and a visit by Justice to the state.

Frederick County was one of three Virginia counties – including Berkeley and Jefferson counties – invited to join West Virginia in 1862 by the reformed government of Virginia, then headquartered in Wheeling, W.Va., after Virginia succeeded from the Union. Only Berkeley and Jefferson counties accepted the invitation. Despite the renewed pleas from West Virginia officials, the counties showed no interest.


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