Clinic Implements Innovative WV LEAP Program to Facilitate Blight Redemption in West Virginia

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The Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic at the West Virginia University College of Law is pleased to announce its new program, West Virginia Legal Education to Address Abandoned/Neglected Properties (“WV LEAP”). WV LEAP involves a multi-pronged effort to identify common legal challenges related to neglected properties in West Virginia, and to research and disseminate information on effective legal solutions. Abandoned and neglected properties often become complicated burdens for counties and municipalities to address because of lack of clarity on applicable laws, impediments to locating problem property owners, and legal complexities related to property titles. Many communities are also not aware of effective tools and strategies available to them for addressing blight.

WV LEAP was started in collaboration with the Northern WV Brownfields Assistance Center, through a generous grant from the Benedum Foundation. To date, the Clinic has conducted “listening sessions” with eight participating West Virginia communities in order to gather data from local stakeholders, such as building inspectors, city attorneys, developers, bankers, and concerned citizens, on the common legal challenges communities face in attempting to address abandoned and neglected buildings.

Clinic staff and law students will spend the first half of 2015 continuing to gather data and conduct legal research, in addition to the Clinic’s activities facilitating community planning and land conservation initiatives. The WV LEAP research will ultimately be incorporated into a “legal toolkit,” which will be made available to municipal attorneys and other stakeholders as a resource on specific steps communities can utilize to combat blight. The toolkit will include guidance such as model ordinances, case studies on effective approaches, and accessible summaries of relevant legal authorities.

The Clinic will also engage in education and outreach on abandoned buildings in the spring and summer of 2015. In particular, the WV LEAP team will conduct a Continuing Legal Education session for West Virginia attorneys on May 14 in Charleston, and will also collaborate with the West Virginia Chapter of the American Planning Association to conduct educational sessions for planners to earn Certification Maintenance credits.

The efforts of West Virginia’s Abandoned Properties Coalition (APC) are another important initiative formed to combat the problem of blight in West Virginia, complementing the Clinic’s work through WV LEAP. The Clinic is a member of the APC, alongside the WV Community Development Hub, NBAC, the Coalfield Development Corporation, the WV Municipal League, the Preservation Alliance of WV, and multiple individual communities. While WV LEAP is geared toward identifying legal tools and strategies currently available in West Virginia, the APC is tasked with advocating statewide policy solutions for streamlining blight redemption. The Clinic’s ongoing research provides important insights into gaps in West Virginia law, highlighting areas requiring reform and legislative advocacy.

Blight—i.e., the prevalence of buildings that are falling into decay, abandoned, or uninhabitable—is a problem nationwide, hampering economic development for many regions. But the problem is particularly egregious in West Virginia, where there are hundreds of neglected properties across the state. The Clinic is pleased to continue to provide technical legal assistance to West Virginia communities, many of which have expressed that neglected properties are their number one concern. WV LEAP is also central to pushing this matter into the mainstream discourse of WV stakeholders. Blight redemption, in turn, will help community beautification initiatives, redevelopment programs, and economic revitalization throughout the state.

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