Residents dig down into unsafe structure rules

by Kate Shunney

There was a light turnout last week for the first of two public hearings about a property enforcement ordinance for Morgan County.

Fewer than 20 residents gathered at Warm Springs Middle School in Berkeley Springs at the hearing last Wednesday, May 9, to learn more about the ordinance and voice their opinion about proposed rules.

Public sentiment at the hearing was largely in favor of the ordinance, which would set up a way for a county agency to field complaints and work with property owners to address unsafe and unsightly structures around the county.

The Morgan County Unsafe Structure and Property Enforcement Ordinance was a priority project for Commissioner Ken Reed, who drafted the rules based on ordinances from other counties.

Under the proposal, the county would establish a board to receive complaints about dilapidated or unsafe structures within the county’s boundaries. Buildings inside the town limits of Bath and Paw Paw wouldn’t be affected by the rules.

Building complaints would be evaluated by a county building enforcement agency, whose members would include a Health Department and a fire department representative, county engineer and two at-large members. The Sheriff of Morgan County would be the official tasked to enforce the orders of the county as they relate to the ordinance.

Owners of dilapidated structures would be asked to make repairs or tear down the structure within a set time period. In cases where owners refused to make repairs or tear a damaged building down, the County Commission could order those repairs or demolition to be done, and make the property owner pay for the cost of the work.

The ordinance sets out an appeal process for property owners and several legal steps the county would have to take before forcing repairs or demolition.

Morgan County Commissioner Ken Reed (center) led a public hearing on May 9 about an ordinance that would push county property owners to deal with unsafe or dilapidate structures. Also pictured are commission secretary Kristy Farris-Somers and Commission President Joel Tuttle (right).

Those steps were the primary concern of residents who turned out to the May 9 hearing.

Susan McConnell asked why the ordinance was built around an “enforcement by complaint” process.

She said the county already has “people on the payroll” who can identify dilapidated and unsafe buildings and report them to a building enforcement agency. McConnell said having residents complain about each other’s property could lead to retribution by neighbors.

“The purpose is to get the county cleaned up, which is long overdue,” she said.

Commissioner Reed said the ordinance is structured to follow the West Virginia code.

Brooke Parker said McConnell’s point about neighbor disputes was her concern as well. She said neighbors who already have a “beef” with each other might use the building enforcement agency to harass each other.

Reed said the agency could toss out complaints if they think they aren’t legitimate.

McConnell said she could bring the county a list of 50 properties that she thinks would meet the description of dilapidated or unsafe structures.

Reed said there is little to no money available to pay for tearing down or repairing properties. He said the county could maybe tear down one property per year.

“We won’t be able to do 50,” he said.

“Our goal is to contact the property owner and engage in a conversation to get them to deal with those willingly,” said Commission President Joel Tuttle.

Commissioner Bob Ford was not at the public hearing.

Reed said there would be several chances for the county to help a property owner fix up or tear down an unsafe or falling down building. He mentioned the free dump day as one resource for property owners.

Dean Carpenter said the dump would only take up to 500 pounds of debris for free.

“That’s a drop in the bucket to taking down a house,” he said.

“If you have a house out in a field with a ‘No Trespassing’ sign – how is that a hazard to other people?” Carpenter asked.

McConnell said those kinds of structures are what is called an “attractive nuisance” – attracting drug dealers and criminal activity.

Lisa Reed asked if the county had thought about hiring building inspectors and adopting building codes to enforce on new construction in the county.

County administrator Larry Thomas said that can be one way to force property owners to keep buildings in good shape. He said that route would be expensive and restrictive.

“It would totally turn our process upside down,” Thomas said.

He said the proposed ordinance lets the public decide what buildings are a problem.

“The thing to do is motivate the property owner to take care of it first,” said Bob Marggraf. He suggested the county have a higher daily fine than the $50 per day proposed under the ordinance. That fine would go into effect if the county’s building enforcement agency ordered the owner to fix or tear down a structure within a certain amount of time and the owner refused to do so.

Dale McConnell asked why the county couldn’t direct all building concerns through the Magistrate Court instead of an enforcement agency.

Reed said the county has to establish the building ordinance before it can enforce it.

Jeanne Mozier asked about a fine for people who file “frivolous complaints” under the ordinance.

Susan McConnell urged county officials to write letters to as many owners of problem properties as possible.

“If there are people who want to bring a building down, can you work with them?” asked Carpenter.

County officials said there are programs and resources that can help homeowners, from small loans to grants.

Carpenter asked if the fire companies could burn down dilapidated buildings as a training event.

Marshall Younker, Deputy Chief of Berkeley Springs Volunteer Fire Company, said those kinds of burns are allowed, but only if the property owner can certify that roofing, asbestos and other materials have been removed first. Younker said that could cost a property owner $2,500 up front. He said the remnants of the burn couldn’t always be taken to the landfill.

Younker said the ordinance should include a fire department representative appointed by the fire association, rather than a chief of one of the county’s four fire departments.

“This is not about aesthetics. It’s about people who create health and safety hazards,” said Susan McConnell.

“Thanks for taking the initiative to do this,” Bob Marggraf said.

A second public hearing was set to be held yesterday, Tuesday, May 16 during an afternoon County Commission meeting.

County officials expect to make a decision about the ordinance in early June.