2017-12-13 / Front Page

Reed drafts county law on unsafe, dilapidated structures

by Kate Shunney

Morgan County Commissioner Ken Reed presented the first draft of a county ordinance last Wednesday that would, if adopted, create a property enforcement agency for the county.

The 16-page Morgan County Unsafe Structure and Property Enforcement Ordinance was posted on the county government website early last month. The proposed county law was supposed to be discussed during a November commission meeting that was later cancelled.

The December 6 meeting was the first time county officials have discussed the ordinance on the record in a public meeting.

In introducing the draft, Commission President Joel Tuttle said Reed had spent six months drafting the ordinance, based on several similar laws enacted by other West Virginia counties.

Commissioner Tuttle said Reed had presented the rules about dealing with unsafe and severely dilapidated structures on “a public forum with 2,500 members” to see what those individuals thought of the ordinance.

Reed later confirmed that “public forum” was the Voices of Morgan County social media page -- a closed group on Facebook.

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During an introduction to the ordinance, Reed said members of the public had asked him to “do something about” dilapidated buildings in the county.

“It was the number one problem that people came to me about,” he said.

“Almost every county in West Virginia has some kind of ordinance on the books,” Reed said. He reviewed two dozen ordinances in researching the issue, he said. The proposed rules were primarily drawn from Roane, Upshur and Wood county ordinances, said Reed.

He said Region 9 director Bill Clark also put up an online survey about dilapidated buildings and how Morgan County should handle them. Of roughly 300 respondents, Reed said 227 agreed that unsafe and dilapidated buildings were a problem. Roughly 75% of respondents said the County Commission should address the issue in some way.

“This is a huge problem in West Virginia,” Reed said, referring to blighted areas and dilapidated buildings. “Most of the state is dealing with blighted areas.”

Reed showed a photo of the burned-out house along Martinsburg Road that has stood in deteriorating condition for more than five years.

“You cannot help but see this when you come into town,” he said. “It looks like a burned-out meth house.”

Reed said it’s difficult to sell companies on moving to Morgan County when they see houses like that, since company reps wonder, “If the county won’t even take care of their problems, why should we invest here?”

Board to weigh complaints

Under the rules, the county would make a five-member board to receive complaints of severely dilapidated or unsafe structures in the county.

The board would be made up of the county’s health officer, a fire chief from a county volunteer fire department, a county engineer and two citizens. The sheriff would be a non-voting member of the board and would enforce any orders under the ordinance.

Any complaint about a dilapidated or unsafe structure would first come to the board, whose members would decide whether or not to accept the complaint for further investigation.

The board could dismiss the complaint, decide to look into it further or “adopt an agreement to remedy deficiencies” that would be shared with the property owner.

Under the ordinance, the board could also determine that the structure is “unsafe, unsanitary, dangerous or detrimental to the public safety or welfare and should be repaired, altered, improved, vacated, removed, closed, cleaned up or demolished.” At that point, the county engineer would ask the County Commission to order the property owner to take some action “within a reasonable time.”

If the County Commission did order those repairs or demolition, property owners would have a specific amount of time to clean up or remove the structure, or face fines of $50 per day.

In cases where a property owner didn’t make the ordered repairs, the ordinance gives county officials the power to hire a contractor to make repairs or remove the building, and then place a lien against the property to cover the contractor’s costs.

The ordinance says the county engineer, in weighing complaints about buildings, would have to collect information from the Sheriff’s tax office, Assessor, County Clerk, County Health Department, Planning Commission, fire departments and 911 centers about the property, its ownership, previous emergency calls to the property and any liens or taxes owed on it.

A summary of the complaint would be sent to the property owner by certified mail under the ordinance. It would include notice when the engineer and members of the enforcement agency would visit the property to investigate the complaint.

Reed pointed out that the proposed ordinance has several steps that would let property owners address complaints.

“They can argue their case why it’s not an unsafe building before the County Commission,” Reed said.

Even if the County Commission determines a building is unsafe and must be fixed, a property owner can appeal that decision to the Circuit Court.

“The last thing you want to do is get to the point where you have blight,” Reed said, citing several cities like Weston that are grappling with the problem of empty or unsafe structures.

“The idea is to get in front of the problem before it turns into the problem,” he said. “There’s only so many buildings out there we’re worried about. Then they’ll be cleaned up.”

“The idea is to engage the property owners to at least start discussing the problem,” said Reed. He mentioned free dump days and other options to help building owners “get these buildings down.”

The ordinance specifically excludes farm buildings from the rules and those inside town limits.

Commissioner Bob Ford commended Reed for his work and said he wanted a legal review of the ordinance, especially about imposing fines and liens.

“We do have an obligation to protect the public. We need to make sure to our best to get it right,” Ford said. “We’re going to get challenged on it.”

Prosecutor Dan James said he would review the ordinance for the commission.

“I do think you’ll have a large number who support this ordinance,” said Commission President Joel Tuttle.

County officials will revisit the ordinance at their second meeting in December and decide if they will proceed to schedule public hearings on the issue. The ordinance must have two public hearings and be voted on by the commissioners before it would take effect.

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