Fairmont City Manager Valerie Means, center, at City Council meeting

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Fairmont City Manager Valerie Means, center, discussed funding for the demolition of abandoned buildings. At left is Mayor Tom Mainella, and at right is Councilmember Rick Garcia.

FAIRMONT — The City of Fairmont continues to step up its derelict buildings demolition program, one of the top goals of Mayor Tom Mainella when he was sworn in during January.

“Mister Mayor, I did want to discuss demolition,” City Manager Valerie Means at Tuesday's meeting. “We did open up the bid for 24 structures. The cost is $258,288.

“These structures will make up the bulk of what we want to do for this year according to our new policies and procedures,” Means said, “and the staff is still working through that. And of course, as you see every week, we get the Raze or Repair report.”

The “raze” part of the report is a list of properties slated for demolition after building inspectors have identified as uninhabitable, and may pose health and safety risks.

Problems arise when a property has been abandoned, or there’s no clear owner. The city then has to pay for the cost of demolition, but it can be years before clear ownership is established. Several legal steps have to be taken before the wrecking ball can be brought in.

A guide that was published by the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic at West Virginia University cited a sobering statistic: As many as one in 16 properties in West Virginia are vacant or abandoned.

While that figure may not represent Fairmont or Marion County exactly, it does bring to light a statewide problem. And with the 2020 Census showing tens of thousands fewer residents of West Virginia than the 2010 Census, the number of abandoned buildings comes as no surprise.

The topic of dilapidated buildings has frequently risen to the top of City Council’s agenda in the form of property purchases, planned demolition or citizen complaints.

“A lot of the structures that end up on the demolition list come from that [Raze or Repair report],” Means said.

West Virginia law states that property owners are responsible for demolition costs if a structure is condemned. But with the increasing number of abandoned homes throughout West Virginia, many cities are taking on the financial and legal burden. And when the cost for demolition falls on the city, there can be delays due to lack of funding.

“If you decide to tear more houses down and you need the money, I think Council would be agreeable to amending the budget because you’ve got that program cooking pretty good," Mainella said.

Commercial and residential building issues are often addressed at City Council meetings, as well, and this meeting was no exception. However, the recent adoption of new zoning laws has resulted in fewer building restrictions, particularly with regard to building homes on smaller lots.

The complete rewrite of Fairmont’s Housing Code was handled exclusively by the city’s Director of Planning and Development, Shae Strait. As the city continues its progress, Strait requested an assistant in the planning office. Council voted to hold a public hearing on the matter at the next meeting on Oct. 12.

“Whenever I hire a new department head or manager, one of the first things I say is after you get your feet wet, take a look at your department," Means said.

“If you think there’s any way in which you can provide better services, or change services, or reorganize your department, come to me with a full plan [once you have] a good idea how you want to move. And Shae did exactly that. He came to me with a very sound plan. He did a very good job explaining explaining his position [and how the city will benefit from the hiring of an assistant].”

“So, it’s an excellent plan, something I can really get behind. I think in the long run, while it still costs a little more money, the benefits we’re going to see in his department will continue to grow,” Means said.

To reach Lori Riley, email lriley@timeswv.com.

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