Henrico County VA

Vote preserved county’s legacy, future

The occasion of Henrico’s 400th birthday this year has been the cause for celebration throughout the county in a variety of ways during the past 10 months. But in 1961, it appeared possible that the county may have celebrated its last meaningful birthday at the age of 350.

Henrico found itself on life support that year, its lengthy and rich history threatened by the possibility of a merger with the City of Richmond. The impetus for such action: Henrico’s success and rapid growth – made clear to city officials by the 1960 Census, which showed the city’s population had fallen by more than 10,000 residents since 1950, while Henrico’s had grown by nearly 60,000 during the same period.

The idea was spurred in large part by the Greater Richmond Committee, an umbrella organization created by three Richmond civic and business associations whose members felt the city would become stronger by enveloping its neighbor, author and historian Nelson Wikstrom wrote in his 2003 book County Manager Government in Henrico, Virginia: Implementation, Evolution and Evaluation.

Ultimately, the push for a merger came to a public vote in each jurisdiction Dec. 12, 1961. Voters in Richmond largely favored the plan, with nearly 70 percent voting in support of it. But Henrico voters, perhaps encouraged by the public opposition of the chairman and vice chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors to the plan, shot it down by a vote of 61 percent to 39 percent.

Their decision prompted the city to file an annexation lawsuit seeking the forceful acquisition of nearly all of Henrico; led to a three-year legal debate on the matter; and ultimately helped to preserve the county in the form citizens know it today, ranking it fourth on the Henrico Citizen’s list of the most significant moments in Henrico’s 400-year-history.

A desirable neighbor
By the late 1950s, Henrico County had built itself into a strong and progressively urbanized community. The county maintained its own secondary road system, which allowed it to carefully plan for sensible growth in a systematic way. Interstate 64 soon would cut a path from one end of the county through the other, providing quick access to and from the city and beyond. Henrico was becoming the location of choice for many who worked, shopped and played in the
city, and Richmond officials realized it.

City officials felt they needed Henrico and its growing tax base in order to survive, according to a Sept. 25, 1961 Associated Press article, since there was little room for expansion left in Richmond’s 40 square miles. Conversely, Henrico’s 232 square miles offered endless potential. Merging the two would provide the tax revenue necessary to sustain Richmond, city officials believed.

The Greater Richmond Committee and Richmond Regional Planning District Commission commissioned a study by the Public Administration Service in 1959 to analyze the benefits of a merger. Perhaps predictably, the report concluded that the idea would be mutually beneficial to both localities and their residents. Henrico’s Board of Supervisors, as Wikstrom wrote, commissioned its own study the following year, which concluded the county was serving its citizens
efficiently and didn’t need the city’s help.

Still, the county agreed to study its options with the city, so both jurisdictions established three-member committees of businessmen to analyze options jointly. The six men met frequently in early 1961, but Henrico citizens began to question the process, which seemed too secretive to some, Wikstom wrote. Soon, an editorial in the Henrico
Herald newspaper blasted the idea of a merger.

“The more we think about the present ‘negotiations’ of the Richmond and Henrico commissions to study the feasibility of consolidation, the more convinced we become that Henrico has been ‘sold down the river,’” it read, according to Wikstrom’s book.

By August 1961, the six-member committee had formalized a proposal: the localities would merge as of Jan. 1, 1963 into a five-borough jurisdiction – Brookland, Fairfield, Richmond, Three Chopt and Tuckahoe – encompassing the entirety of both city and county. The proposal called for a 66-month interim period during which an 11-member council would govern the new jurisdiction (to be known as Richmond) – one member from each of the county districts, four from the old city of Richmond and three at-large members from the new jurisdiction. Afterwards, the plan proposed that the council consist of nine members elected on an at-large basis.

The proposal would have made the new-look Richmond the fifth-largest city in land area at the time, increasing it to 232 square miles and bumping up its population from about 220,000 to about 337,000.

Opposition grows
But the proposal seemed flawed to some observers and Henrico citizens, including several prominent ones who championed loudly against it. For example, it proposed gradually raising Henrico’s real estate tax rate – which was slated to decrease by 10 cents per $100 of assessed value in July 1961 – to the higher city rate during a 14-
year period.

Though the county’s Board of Supervisors officially endorsed the plan, its chairman, Simeon Burnette of the Fairfield District, and vice chairman, B. Earl Dunn of the Brookland District, soon thereafter voiced their opposition to it publicly. As Wikstrom described in his book, both men felt the proposal would unfairly raise taxes on county residents without providing them services that would be on par with the higher costs.

When county voters went to the polls Dec. 12, 1961, they did so with the words of Richmond City Manager Horace Edwards perhaps ringing in their ears. Edwards had promised that if the vote didn’t pass, the city would sue to annex Henrico instead. Following the overwhelming rejection of the plan in Henrico, the Richmond City Council gave his
statement legs by filing a lawsuit seeking 142 square miles of the county, which contained all but 8,000 of Henrico’s residents at the time.

“In pursuit of such a large area,” Wikstrom wrote, “Richmond was effectively seeking to acquire the entire county. In reality, Henrico’s remaining area of approximately 90 square miles would have hardly contained a nearly sufficient population and resources to support and fund a county government able to provide public education and other essential services.”

The annexation suit, in essence, was a direct threat to Henrico’s existence.

During the annexation case, heard by the Henrico Circuit Court, Henrico County Manager Ed Beck testified that the county didn’t need any help providing for its citizens and that in fact, annexation would result in less efficient provision of services for those residents. The court delivered its verdict in April 1964, awarding the city just 17 square miles (containing 45,000 residents) of Henrico, mostly in the Near West End and Northside – regions that included Willow Lawn, the Azalea Mall and the Reynolds Metals headquarters, Wikstrom wrote.

Following some wrangling by both sides about what the land was worth, and the slight adjustment of the actual boundaries of the land to be annexed, the court ordered Richmond to pay Henrico $55 million for its acquisition.

More than three years after the debate about a merger began – and nearly a year after the court’s decision was delivered – the Richmond City Council considered the offer, weighed the fee, and then voted in early 1965 to decline the offer, which it felt was too steep. Several years of consideration, debate and legal contests ultimately had
resulted in nothing.

In the 46 years since that decision, the city has seen its population drop by more than 15,000 residents. In the same period of time, Henrico’s population has grown by more than 180,000.
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