The Times West Virginian

November 3, 2013

Vacant, dilapidated structures still problem

Fairmont officials hope residents, organizations will become involved

By Kaylyn Christopher
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — City officials continue to address the problem of vacant and dilapidated structures in Fairmont and are also encouraging residents and organizations within the community to become engaged and involved.

For the past two years, the city has been drafting a strategic approach, known as the Community Investment & Transformation Initiative (CITI), which, if adopted, would put policies in place to help alleviate blight in the community.

According to City Planner Kathy Wyrosdick, CITI’s goals would include preventing structures from deteriorating, finding ways for residents to become actively involved and demolishing buildings that have become completely dilapidated.

Wyrosdick said the demolition process removes barriers to the revitalization of the community, but that measures must also be taken before structures reach the point of demolition.

“Demolition is a symptom of a larger problem which is disinvestment in our neighborhoods,” Wyrosdick said at a recent “12:30” meeting facilitated by Main Street Fairmont, during which the topic of dilapidated buildings was discussed. “And that’s really what we need to try to fix.”

One key part of CITI is the proposal for a vacant property registration ordinance. The ordinance would require property owners to register their property as soon as it becomes vacant so that it could be inspected for any structural issues that could cause it to deteriorate. For every year that the property remains vacant, the city would administer a fee to the property owner.

“The reason for the fee is you’re trying to motivate people to not sit on their property and to help them along to its productive reuse,” Wyrosdick said.

Similar ordinances are already in place in some other municipalities throughout the state including Wheeling, which has found success with the ordinance, Wyrosdick said.

Wheeling enforced the ordinance once it became a pilot home rule city. Wyrosdick said the state noticed the effectiveness of the ordinance and has since made it possible for all municipalities to put similar ordinances in place even without having home rule power.

Wyrosdick said there would be challenges to enforcing the ordinance, though. For instance, administering the registration process would require additional time from current staff or the hiring of a new staff member.

“We need to build the capacity within our staff to effectively manage it,” Wyrosdick said.

The benefits of having the ordinance in place, though, would be that it would prevent more and more structures from reaching the point where demolition is the only answer, Wyrosdick said.

According to Wyrosdick, demolition is an expensive process, and the city typically cannot recoup funds that are dedicated to it.

“We have found that it costs, on average, $18,000 to remove one building.” Wyrosdick said.

She also said that that estimate doesn’t include legal costs or staffing costs. According to Wyrosdick, there are an estimated 250 residential homes that are dilapidated and need to be demolished.

“It would take $3.7 million to remove all of the vacant and dilapidated homes,” Wyrosdick said. “And that’s just residential. If we include commercial and industrial, we estimate it would be double that.”

Wyrosdick said the city’s budget cannot be the only source for that funding and that there is very little grant funding available.

“Those are public funds being used for public use, but we can’t anticipate to recover those funds, so the city has to make policy decisions on how much to put into demolition,” Wyrosdick said.

For fiscal year 2014, a total of $50,000 of the city’s budget has been allocated to demolition.

According to Wyrosdick, it will take legislative changes at the state level to make the issue more manageable.

Wyrosdick is a member of the Abandoned Property Coalition, a group that is working to make those legislative changes happen.

“We’re working hard to get this in front of legislators in a very prominent way,” Kent Spellman, executive director of the West Virginia Community Development HUB, said.

According to Spellman, the APC has four priorities: supporting communities in their efforts to develop land banks, require people who purchase vacant and dilapidated structures to submit a plan for how they will deal with those properties, develop a process for getting state tax credits to property owners who responsibly deal with their properties and establishing a super lien process that not only puts a lien on the property but the property owner as well.

“We have to, as a state, decide that we want to do something about this in order for it to actually happen,” Spellman said.

One way to do that is by banding together with other municipalities, added Spellman.

“If any legislator gets a call from five mayors about a particular issue, that is really powerful,” he said. “The idea of connecting communities to advocate collectively is really powerful as well.”

In addition to CITI and advocating for legislative changes, Wyrosdick said a cultural change can also have an impact.

“We need to start rising up and saying we’re not going to let this happen anymore in our neighborhoods,” Wyrosdick said.

Email Kaylyn Christopher at kchristopher@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @KChristopherTWV.