WELLSBURG – Officials and residents shared concerns and ideas related to Wellsburg’s future at an open house held Monday to seek public input for a comprehensive plan pursued by the city’s planning commission.
West Virginia University professor Jared Anderson and others with WVU’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Clinic set up stations at the Wellsburg Salvation Army social hall where visitors could suggest ways the city could be improved and identify areas where development might occur.
The planning commission has recruited the law clinic to assist in developing a comprehensive plan for development. Under state law, all cities with zoning codes must adopt such a plan.
A public hearing will be held before the plan is presented for Wellsburg Council’s approval later this year.
Local business owner and resident Fred Marino was among visitors who expressed concern about rising flood insurance premiums spurred by reforms to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“I would like to see FEMA lighten up. That’s one of the biggest issues in our town,” Marino said.
The Biggert Waters Act was passed by Congress in 2012 to help the National Flood Insurance Program to overcome billions of dollars in claims filed by home and business owners affected by such major disasters as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.
But local officials have complained it’s imposed an unfair burden on residents and businesses in flood zones that sustain much less serious damage by raising their premiums by 25 percent initially, with other increases to follow.
Marino said his business on state Route 2 has never flooded but now must be insured because new zones were established.
He said the cost of flood insurance hinders the sale of vacant buildings and homes in the city’s flood zone.
The issue also was raised by the planning commission at its meeting before the open house.
Anderson agreed, saying, “This is a big issue in a lot of communities, not only in West Virginia but throughout the country.”
City Manager Mark Henne said Wellsburg’s concerns have reached the ears of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; and U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling; who each have co-authored separate bills aimed at delaying the regulations until an insurance affordability study can be done by FEMA.
Anderson said the city may adopt a community rating system that could reduce premiums for flood insurance policyholders across the community if certain steps are taken to mitigate flooding.
Bill Garvey, a member of the planning commission, said efforts by the city to separate the combined stormwater and sewer lines is likely to help reduce flooding, which has occurred when storm drains back up during heavy rain.
Ernie Jack, a resident and co-chairman of the Wellsburg Applefest Committee, said the 1996 flood and land slides that followed north and south of Wellsburg led to the city being isolated.
Jack acknowledged a new Ohio River bridge just south of the city has been proposed to provide access to Ohio in such cases.
But he said he doubts the span will be built for many years and suggested further widening state Route 2 instead.
He also suggested improving Internet service for the city, which he said is very slow and may hinder business development.
“That’s a real economic issue,” said John Brown, executive director of the Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission. Brown noted the Brooke-Hancock Regional Development Council, an arm of BHJ, conducted a survey to show the need for broadband Internet service.
Micheal O’Brien, also co-chairman of the Wellsburg Applefest, said while the Ohio River served local industries for many years, it’s time for its recreational opportunities to be capitalized.
“The focus on the river is so important. We just need to find ways to utilize its full potential. It’s such an asset,” O’Brien said, adding Pittsburgh officials have been able to convert former industrial sites along its rivers for recreational purposes.
Activities supporting water sports and businesses selling boats and related equipment were suggested by various guests.
Asked the city’s strengths, visitors cited the city’s relatively low cost of living, relaxed lifestyle, variety of restaurants and local colleges and festivals.
Bill Williams, a member of the planning commission, said more enforcement of an ordinance against junk cars and repairs to the city’s sidewalks are needed to improve the city’s appearance.
Other suggestions for improvements included offering incentives for new businesses to come to Wellsburg, helping local aspiring entrepreneurs to learn business skills and establishing an ice skating rink at the 4th Ward Park.
“We need to really work on more activities for kids. We also need things for adults in their 20s to do,” said Barbara Stephens, a resident of the 49 Hill area.
Stephens said more jobs also are needed to keep the latter group from leaving the area.
But Wanda Lazear, a Wellsburg resident, said she has hope for a better local economy in the future.
“We’re optimistic that can be done, with the new bridge and oil and gas workers coming in,” she said, adding, “Things are looking up in Wellsburg. And you need optimism to survive.”
(Scott can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)