City panel passes vacant structure ordinance
"Charleston Gazette, The (WV)", 2014-02-20
Feb. 20--Read the bill here
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An ordinance that would require owners of vacant structures to register their buildings passed Charleston's Strong Neighborhoods Task Force Wednesday. The law would shift the cost from the city to property owners.
Assistant City Attorney Grady Ford told committee members the city spends about $350,000 annually related to vacant structures. The city monitors those buildings, often contributing upkeep to the properties, as well as fire and police services when public safety issues arise.
There are currently more than 290 vacant structures in the city, according to Building Commissioner Tony Harmon. Harmon's staff has been collecting data related to vacant structures throughout the city for the past three months, he said.
The ordinance would also impose a $250 fee for those properties on the list for more than a year. The fee increases to $500 after two years, $750 after three years, $1,000 after four years. Once a property has been on the registry for five years, owners must pay a $1,250 fee annually.
"It's not punitive in nature, but rather it is a recovery of those costs," said City Councilman Joe Denault of the fees, which are meant to be comparable to the city's $350,000 costs.
Those fees would be used by the city to repair or demolish vacant structures, improve public safety efforts of fire and police personnel and implement the proposed ordinance.
If passed, all vacant structures "would start at zero," Ford said, even if they've been empty for a number of years.
"I think we've got to start everybody off on the same footing," Ford said.
Ford said the ordinance gives the city's Building Commissioner the ability to be more proactive in handling vacant structures. If an owner doesn't register his or her structure, the commissioner can do so. Property owners must be notified, however, by way of a notice on the structure and by mail.
Owners have the right to appeal their structure's status, but must prove it doesn't meet the provisions of a vacant structure as defined in the ordinance. A structure isn't listed as vacant if it doesn't violate building or health and sanitation codes, and if its utilities are active.
While the ordinance was passed with only minor edits, members of the task force listed issues to take into consideration as it moves through the adoption process.
Shawn Means, of Habitat for Humanity, asked what happens if a structure changes hands. Means said landlords have "expertly" switched properties in order to bypass regulations and avoid fees.
"They have actively sought other people to switch properties with them at the appropriate time to keep from having to be enforced," Means said.
While some voiced concerned that liens on properties where owners don't pay their fees could make them unattractive to developers, Ford said the City Collector has the discretion to waive or reduce those charges.
Harmon said the Building Commission's largest problem remains its inability to locate owners of vacant structures.
"It's a lot of time and effort to do it, but we need to sit down and really go after these owners, and try to figure out where they're at, get them located, get them notified," Harmon said.
The proposed ordinance moves to the Planning Committee, which will consider the bill at its meeting on Monday at 7 p.m. in the City Services Center.
In other business, members of the task force are planning to work with consultants at GAI Consultants Inc., to develop a master plan for the Greenbrier Street streetscape. GAI is already working on a plan for the capitol side of the street, so plan development for the other side would come at a reduced price, according to Lori Brannon of the city's Planning Department.
The task force plans to approach both the East End Community Association and East End Main Street regarding funding for the plan.
"This piece of it is something the neighborhood can invest in and show their commitment to the project," Brannon said.
City Councilman Jack Harrison said a community investment is favorable in the eyes of the state when it comes to securing funding in the future.
"It certainly gives you more leverage with the state," Harrison said.
Mary Beth Hoover, task force member and City Councilwoman, said improvements to Greenbrier Street would highlight the area and also emphasize that it's a neighborhood, not just a thoroughfare.
"It's a major gateway, just from the airport to anyone visiting the state capitol, so the state should have a vested interest in this, too," Hoover said. "Once you come off the highway ... it should be this showcase: this is West Virginia. This is the state capitol. And hopefully it's going to say, 'This is a neighborhood. Slow down. Watch for pedestrians.' "
Reach Rachel Molenda at email@example.com or 304-348-5102.
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