West Virginia considers panhandle sales to balance budget

As West Virginia lawmakers grapple with balancing the budget in the midst of record revenue shortfalls, one scenario being considered is a land deal­—specifically, selling off the panhandles. It’s a controversial plan, but one that’s gaining traction as fiscal realities set in.

The state faces a $270 million hole in next fiscal year’s budget, as well as the prospect of declining revenues in the near future because of the rapid slide of the coal industry.  Lawmakers believe splitting off one or both panhandles could return the state to fiscal solvency.

In addition to the price-per-acre proceeds, the state stands to simultaneously cut expenses, with hundreds of miles fewer roads to pave and maintain, and at least three fewer DMV offices to staff.

Maryland seems to be the most likely focus of an eastern parcel sale, since Virginia is reportedly, “still indignant about the secession and not at all convinced the panhandle would be suitable for growing peanuts,” according to one legislative source who requested anonymity.

However, Baltimore-centric Maryland lawmakers already view their own state’s western panhandle as an unwanted appendage, so it may be difficult to get that state’s General Assembly to add a second panhandle.

West Virginia House of Delegates Land Transaction Committee Chairman Seamus Archer said the prospects are much better for selling the northern panhandle to Pennsylvania. “We’ve talked with Harrisburg and there is interest,” Archer said.  “Having DiCarlo’s Pizza in Wheeling certainly helps sweeten the deal.”

West Virginia’s approach to its budget problems is not unique. An increasing number of states have considered land sales–or “panhandle peddling” as it’s often called–to generate revenue, said Arthur “Boo” Radley, executive director of the Federal Land Sale and Exchange Commission.

“Oklahoma has several potential buyers interested in its panhandle,” said Radley. “Texas, Colorado and even New Mexico have responded to the RFP (request for proposal) with bids.”

It’s hardly the first time West Virginia has considered trimming its borders, and not always for financial reasons. Many of the founders didn’t like the shape of the state, as it too-closely mirrored an obscene hand gesture. Moreover, it was thought to be more difficult to defend outcroppings from both armed insurgency and out-of-state drivers who misuse the passing lane.

In 1933, Lincoln County Senator Sidd Finch proposed a measure to sell the northernmost counties to Canada with the stated purpose of “preventing Wheeling from laying further claim as capital at any time in the foreseeable future, and because those people are so abominably Catholic.”

The deal fell through when the Canadian government found out the land was inhabited by Catholics.

Officials caution there are still a number of hurdles that must be cleared before this sale goes through and the northern panhandle becomes part of the Keystone State. “Our goal is to have the deal done by April 1, 2017,” said Senator James Dale, chair of the Land Transfer Committee.

“Yes, we’re losing the northern panhandle,” Dale said, “But I want the people to know that we still have 51 of 55 counties, and that ain’t bad.”