Dunbar weighing vacant building fee

By Amelia A. Pridemore
Dunbar's vacant buildings attract crime, are an eyesore, and create health hazards that cost the city money, officials said.Now, those properties' owners may have to pay the city back.Monday night, Dunbar City Council members approved the first reading of an ordinance that would charge owners of vacant buildings a fee that would increase every year. Building Inspector Hugh Leishman described the fee as an "unoccupancy tax."Council members will conduct a public hearing on the matter at the Feb. 19 meeting.The tax would apply to commercial and residential properties.Mayor Jack Yeager said Wheeling and Charleston, both home rule cities, undertook similar measures and were both successful. The state Legislature then passed a law allowing other cities to follow suit.City officials say the vacant buildings, particularly ones that are abandoned and dilapidated, are a significant problem affecting all residents and the city budget. Yeager pointed out that city firefighters must extinguish any blazes at the buildings, and city police have to investigate any crimes that occur there.The longer the properties stay vacant, the higher the associated costs from investigating break-ins."We've had two vacant since 1999," Leishman said. "They're a fire hazard, a vermin hazard ... Quite frankly, they also attract transients and teenagers who want to go drink or whatever."Police Chief Earl Whittington said police patrol areas with vacant buildings frequently because they attract crime. The properties can attract those involved in the drug trade, particularly those who want to build meth labs there or conceal evidence of a meth lab.
Some people also find them appealing places to illegally dump household trash."They're a haven for all kinds of trouble," he said. "You've got dumping, drinking, homeless people living there, young adults looking for a place to hang out away from law enforcement... Nothing good comes from vacant and dilapidated buildings. They're a law enforcement problem, they're a building inspector's problem, a community problem - just a problem."Abandoned and dilapidated buildings have been a concern for cities throughout West Virginia, and what often hampers cities working to get rid of them is a long legal process. Whittington said he would like to see legislation that would allow cities to deal with these properties in a timelier fashion."If they're unfit for living or unsafe, we should be able to remove them," he said. "There's no positiveness from vacant and dilapidated buildings."In other matters:
* Council members approved an agreement with South Charleston, allowing for automatic mutual aid between the two cities' fire departments. This would mean that once one city's department is called, the other's is called immediately. This would only apply to structure fires or other major incidents.* City Clerk Ross Harrison announced that some city residents would have to vote at new locations in the city's upcoming elections. The city recently realigned its wards, moving some residents into new wards.Originally, Harrison said, he was told no one would have to change polling places. He later found out that some would have to change. Less than 200 people are expected to be affected. Yeager encouraged voters to check their new voter registration cards to ensure they are at the correct polling places.                                                                     
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