CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Top West Virginia officials on Friday said they would welcome three Maryland counties that inquired about becoming part of the Mountain State, even though the likelihood of the union is almost nonexistent.
“We're absolutely standing here with open arms," Gov. Jim Justice said during a morning news conference that included Senate President Craig Blair and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, who also offered their support.
Justice offered to call state lawmakers back for a special session to vote on a resolution that would add about 250,000 people in Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties in Maryland to West Virginia.
Maryland officials representing the counties wrote letters dated Oct. 14 to Blair and Hanshaw expressing interest in joining West Virginia, news outlets reported. The letters were signed by Maryland state Sen. George Edwards and Delegates Wendell Beitzel, Jason Buckel, Mike McKay and William Wivell.
“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 told the Parkersburg News and Sentinel.
The office of Maryland’s Republican governor hadn’t been aware of lawmakers’ plans to send the letter, Gov. Larry Hogan spokesman Michael Ricci told The Washington Post.
“This has probably left a lot of people confused — including many Western Marylanders,” he said. “We certainly hope that the legislators will provide some clarity here.”
Paul Clayton Edwards, the Republican chair of the Garrett County Board of Commissioners, read the letter for the first time Thursday and told the Post he has heard people talk about joining West Virginia, but he didn’t think it was reasonable.
“I don’t know what their vision on this is,” he said. “Maryland’s got great schools, Maryland’s got great roads,” he said. “To up and leave, there’d have to be an overwhelming benefit.”
The odds of the counties actually making the move are slim. Not only would it be legally complicated, it would also require referendums and approvals from lawmakers in both states as well as from the U.S. Congress.
“There’s almost zero chance of this ever occurring,” Buckel, who heads the GOP caucus in the Maryland House of Delegates, told The Baltimore Sun.
He said he hopes it will remind lawmakers to give more consideration to the needs of the western Maryland counties.
West Virginia itself was formed in 1863 when 50 Virginia jurisdictions seceded to form the new state, but other, more recent efforts to redraw lines around the country and in Maryland have made little progress.
Last year, officials in Frederick County, Virginia, rejected a proposal from West Virginia lawmakers asking if they wanted to make a similar move. In 2013, the Western Maryland Initiative tried to build support for secession through a Facebook page. In the late 1990s, a few Eastern Shore lawmakers proposed a state of Delmarva, which would include Eastern Shore counties from Maryland and Virginia and Delaware’s two southernmost counties, The Baltimore Sun reported.
The offer comes after West Virginia lost a higher percentage of its residents than any other U.S. state over the past decade, costing the state one of its three U.S. House seats. West Virginia’s population fell by 59,278 from 2010 to 2020, to about 1.8 million.
Autumn Miller, a natural wellness coach, moved her family to Frederick, Maryland, from the Romney, West Virginia, area in 2013. Her job was located in Hagerstown, Maryland, where her husband also is a supervisor at a distribution center there.
“We really didn’t want to move out of West Virginia but there’s no work here,” Miller said. “That’s the biggest struggle.”
Miller also was critical of a lack of good internet and cell phone service in that part of northeastern West Virginia. West Virginia officials recently unveiled a plan to expand long-sought broadband access in rural communities at a potential cost of more than $1 billion. Most of the state funding comes from its share of federal American Rescue Plan allocations.