Vacant Structure Draft Ordinance Heads to Council

Repost from Rachel Molenda, Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —A bill that would require owners of vacant structures in Charleston to register the property has support from the city’s Planning Committee.

The committee voted Monday to endorse the ordinance as it makes its way to City Council for first reading next week.

“This is almost a work of art,” Planning Director Dan Vriendt said. “We were so far apart at the start of this, and [City Attorney Paul Ellis] and [Assistant City Attorney Grady Ford] have done a great job of bridging all the differences.”

City Council members have been working on some kind of vacant structure ordinance since 2003, according to committee chairwoman Mary Jean Davis. This bill was frequently held up, in part, due to the questionable constitutionality of proposed fees.

“This is not a punitive fee,” Ford said. “This is not something that doesn’t bear a relation to the amount of money that the city spends providing services to those houses.”

The fees set forth in the proposed bill are meant to reflect the cost of providing city services to vacant structures, which amounts to about $350,000 annually. Those fees would shift the cost of a vacant structure from the city to the property owner.

The city frequently monitors those buildings, contributes to the upkeep of properties and provides police and fire service when public safety issues arise.

The ordinance would requirement $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 and $1,000 after four years. Once a property has been on the registry for five years, owners must pay a $1,250 fee annually.

“I’m comfortable with those fees legally,” Ellis said.
The city would use the collected fees to repair or demolish vacant structures, improve public safety efforts of fire and police personnel and implement the proposed ordinance.

The ordinance also gives the Building Commissioner the authority to register a structure, should the owner fail to do so. In that case, the owner would be notified 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.

Exemptions to the ordinance include buildings owned by the city, state or federal government; a new building or property undergoing construction, renovation or rehabilitation; and, any building being actively marketed for a period of 18 months.

Multi-unit buildings with a vacancy rate that doesn’t surpass 85 percent are also included. For instance, a four-unit building with only one tenant would not be considered vacant.

“We do want to protect landlords, who are choosey [about tenants],” Councilman Courtney Persinger said.

Councilman Jack Harrison, who also serves on the Strong Neighborhoods Task Force that initially proposed the bill, said the bill was strong while continuing to protect property rights.

“It does have due process in it,” Harrison said. “We are talking about property here and property rights, and we’ve done everything we could to protect those rights. And we should.”

The bill will be introduced at City Council on Monday. The council meeting is at 7 p.m. in City Hall, located at 501 Virginia St. E. in Charleston.

Reach Rachel Molenda at rachel.mole… or 304-348-5102.