CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An ordinance that would require owners of vacant structures to register their buildings passed Charleston's Strong Neighborhoods Task Force Wednesday. The law would shift the cost from the city to property owners.
Assistant City Attorney Grady Ford told committee members the city spends about $350,000 annually related to vacant structures. The city monitors those buildings, often contributing upkeep to the properties, as well as fire and police services when public safety issues arise.
There are currently more than 290 vacant structures in the city, according to Building Commissioner Tony Harmon. Harmon's staff has been collecting data related to vacant structures throughout the city for the past three months, he said.
The ordinance would also impose a $250 fee for those properties on the list for more than a year. The fee increases to $500 after two years, $750 after three years, $1,000 after four years. Once a property has been on the registry for five years, owners must pay a $1,250 fee annually.
"It's not punitive in nature, but rather it is a recovery of those costs," said City Councilman Joe Denault of the fees, which are meant to be comparable to the city's $350,000 costs.
Those fees would be used by the city to repair or demolish vacant structures, improve public safety efforts of fire and police personnel and implement the proposed ordinance.
If passed, all vacant structures "would start at zero," Ford said, even if they've been empty for a number of years.
"I think we've got to start everybody off on the same footing," Ford said.
Ford said the ordinance gives the city's Building Commissioner the ability to be more proactive in handling vacant structures. If an owner doesn't register his or her structure, the commissioner can do so. Property owners must be notified, however, by way of a notice on the structure and by mail.
Owners have the right to appeal their structure's status, but must prove it doesn't meet the provisions of a vacant structure as defined in the ordinance. A structure isn't listed as vacant if it doesn't violate building or health and sanitation codes, and if its utilities are active.
While the ordinance was passed with only minor edits, members of the task force listed issues to take into consideration as it moves through the adoption process.
Shawn Means, of Habitat for Humanity, asked what happens if a structure changes hands. Means said landlords have "expertly" switched properties in order to bypass regulations and avoid fees.