City targets owners of vacant properties
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Owners of vacant properties might have to register those sites with the city of Charleston soon, and at considerable cost, under an ordinance being drafted by some City Council members.
Although fees could rise to thousands of dollars after several years, the goal is not to penalize owners or raise money, Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis said.
"We don't want to fine people. We don't want to take people to court," Davis said. "We want people to clean up their buildings or sell them.
"The issue is . . . we have a number of vacant buildings across the city -- residential and commercial. People who live near them suffer. Conditions next door are sometimes deplorable. You have street people who go in at night, rodents.
"You have no control. We can't go in and inspect the buildings. In some cases, we don't even know who owns the buildings."
The problem plagues cities around the state and across the nation. Huntington and Bluefield recently announced plans to tear down hundreds of dilapidated buildings. Other communities are trying alternate methods.
Wheeling, for example, set up a registration system like the one Charleston is considering under an ordinance passed in 2009. Code enforcer David Palmer told members of Charleston's Strong Neighborhoods Task Force this week how it works.
"Owners are required to register 45 days after a building becomes vacant," said Palmer, who's been on the job since August. "That wasn't being followed."
After tracking down and sending letters to owners, though, Palmer said he has 229 properties listed on his spreadsheet. "Some have been removed -- occupied; some removed -- demoed. There are about 185 active right now."
In Wheeling, owners can register free for up to a year. The fee is $500 if the property is still vacant after a year, $1,000 after two years, then $2,000, $3,500 and $4,000.
Councilman Joe Deneault asked Palmer if he saw properties being demolished more rapidly.
"Once they get to the $1,000 level, they say, 'You're penalizing me for not being able to rent my property.' Well, there must be some reason you can't rent it."
Members of the Charleston task force, which Davis chairs, agreed Wednesday to adopt Wheeling's fee schedule in their ordinance, which was drafted by the city attorney's office.
City Planning Director Dan Vriendt will make some other changes in the draft ordinance before the task force meets next month.
Task force member Russ Young wondered if the measure is too broad. "We can all probably think of [vacant] buildings that are perfectly fine."
Deneault said there's one on the West Side.
"The Lowman's Pharmacy building. It's in good condition." Prospective tenants have been turned away, he said. "They just want too much money."
Davis urged the task force to move forward.
"My feeling is, we have to do something," she said. "Rules can be changed. I've been on [the] council 13 years. We've been talking about it that long."
The registration fee is deliberately set high to send a message to owners, Davis said.
"You can't leave any building vacant with no one taking care of it," she said. "You can't have that. We have neighbors living next door to houses that have been vacant for years.
"There are places in Charleston where people say, 'We are going to clean this up in a year,' and they don't do it.
"It's a significant fee," Davis said. "We have to get the attention of the owners of vacant properties."
Reach Jim Balow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5102.