A law allowing municipalities to take new measures against owners of dilapidated, abandoned properties has gone into effect.
The law allows code enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants from a municipal judge to determine the status of a structure. If granted, the agency can inspect the property to see if it is truly dilapidated, Charleston City Attorney Paul Ellis said.
If there are significant issues with the structure, municipalities can then demolish those that are serious public safety hazards. Previously, municipalities had to get either written consent from the building’s owner, or the municipality could get an order in circuit court.
The law also provides more clarification for cities on what structures trigger action by these municipalities, and adds more specific guidelines on what municipalities can do to take legal action to either inspect or demolish them. The building or structure must have either a “substantial risk of fire, building collapse or any other threat to life and safety,” according to the new law.
Ellis said he’s proud of the law, calling in a “great example of good government.” He said it will hopefully prevent urban blight, and eliminate structures that are often targeted by squatters.
He said these structures also often attract criminal activity, especially drug manufacturing.
“Before, the law was somewhat ambiguous and didn’t address experiences code enforcement experience daily,” Ellis said. “This provides clear guidance for municipalities while also providing due process for property owners.”
The legislation is a welcome gift to Charleston’s building commission, who proposed the legislation to the city attorney’s office. Soon after the West Virginia Municipal League, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, the WVU Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic and code enforcement officials throughout the state got involved with developing a bill, which was passed during the 2017 legislative session.
Charleston building commissioner Tony Harmon welcomed the changes. In the past, he’s had to send out letters to owners, hoping he’d receive a reply. Harmon said he often didn’t hear back, because the homeowners either abandoned the property or absentee landlords failed to maintain them.
Harmon said it’s a major reason why there are still several vacant buildings in disrepair throughout the city.
He said the law will allow the building commission to start taking care of the buildings they haven’t been able to get to. He said often the city gets calls about certain vacant properties, but previously he couldn’t provide a resolution.
“There’s a reason it’s been sitting there for years — it’s either that we can’t get a hold of the owner or it’s sitting on our priority list,” Harmon said.
Harmon said the number of vacant structures in the city rise and fall between 500 and 600, depending on if people decide to move back into the homes, or if the owners pay for demolition.
He expects the number of vacant homes to only rise as Charleston’s population continues to age. Harmon said these older homes are often a struggle to sell for various reasons, but a major contributing factor is their older design.
“There’s no room to build on to them. They have one to two bathrooms, no garage,” Harmon said. “They become obsolete, because no one wants to put 20 to 30 thousand dollars into those homes.”
Harmon does have one concern with the law going into effect — the city still has only limited to funds to demolish these buildings. All building demolition funds come through grants, primarily through the Community Development Block Grant program. This year the building commission received $200,000 of CDBG funds, down more than 30 percent from the previous year’s funding.
While the city will often provide the department limited funds after the department runs out of CDBG funds, it’s not guaranteed.
“We’d like to have a generating fund to make sure we can still demolish these structures,” Harmon said.