Collecting dust? Not Dunbar's comprehensive plan

In 2014, Dunbar, a western neighbor of the state capital of Charleston, adopted a comprehensive plan. Located in the southern part of the state, Dunbar is an incorporated city in Kanawha County. The population of the city peaked at approximately 11,000 in 1960, and now stands at 7,907. The comprehensive plan outlines specific action steps designed to improve the quality of life in Dunbar. The full 82-page plan includes high priority (to be achieved in 5 years), medium priority (5-8 years), and low priority (less than 10 years) objectives. In just over 2 years, the city has successfully completed a large portion of what it set out to achieve.  As shown in the chart below, 78% of high priority goals are either completed, in progress, or in the planning stage. 

Status of High-Priority Goals During community meetings, the planning commission gathered public input and worked collaboratively with the LUSD clinic to develop the plan. This allowed the city to take corrective action on issues which the community was most concerned about.  

The plan includes four primary goals. The first of four goals, improving community amenities, included developing and maintaining the parks of the city. Dunbar is home to the beautiful Wine Cellar Park, dating to before the Civil War. The park surrounds Laura Anderson Lake, along which the city has installed a nine-hole disk golf course and has plans to finish a full 18-hole course to hold disk golf tournaments. Other improvements include a staging area and funding to replace the wine cellar doors. The city stocks the lake with fish and provides equipment for a children’s fishing day, as well as sponsoring archery and bicycle safety courses.

Among notable city improvements achieved as part of the plan, Dunbar was able to refurbish a $2 million firetruck and has achieved full staffing within the fire department. A recent wastewater project simultaneously improved approximately 60% of streets while installing new sewer lines. In a recent follow-up with Bill Cunningham, Dunbar volunteer city planner, the LUSD clinic was able to assess how successful the city has been in carrying out the plan.

“Those (streets) have all been resurfaced. Next year, there’s money appropriated in the budget to start picking up on some of the smaller street sections that need (to be) repaired. I would say there is a plan to accomplish that goal,” Cunningham explained.

 A goal to create a camping ground will take longer than expected, but is still in planning. The plan would require widening the road to the park and the city would have to run utilities, but someone has volunteered equipment to complete the project and it is expected to be completed within ten years.

The second goal in the plan addressed revitalization to encourage new residents and business. The city’s sole chance at annexation remains in the West, with Charleston’s city border to the East. Dunbar’s attempt at annexing this land was rejected by the county commission. The city is currently working with the LUSD to develop planning and zoning ordinances and recommend a zoning map. These actions will help revitalize the central business district and encourage new growth. Just recently, Ollie’s has opened a store in Dunbar and the city’s Aldi’s is expanding its store size to become the largest branch in the region. The city is hopeful Ollie’s opening will result in other businesses planting their roots in Dunbar.

“Ollie’s moving in to Dunbar Plaza, that’s a major plus,” Cunningham explained. “That can be an anchor to potentially draw some other business. They tend to be a pretty big draw for business, so we’re hoping some other businesses will try to feed off what they draw.”

Goal three addressed transportation conflicts within the city. One major effort of the plan was to beautify the community. A significant trouble the city has faced is trying to maintain sidewalks while conforming to municipal ordinances. The city has enacted a “streetscape project” but according to city ordinances, sidewalks are to be maintained by the property owners. However, the city has enacted authority from the city charter to still ensure proper care of sidewalks.

“The sidewalks belong to the residents. It’s the residents’ responsibility to maintain the sidewalks. It’s not the city’s responsibility,” says Cunningham. “Under that same code it gives the city the authority to go in and do the work in a bond format and then place a lien against the property… until that expense is reimbursed to the city.”

Cunningham believes that the 12th Street Mall will be opened to vehicular traffic within the next 2-3 years and an extension of Charles Avenue could be carried out, pending a new business development plan. The parking problem that Dunbar was facing has resolved itself, with Prestera (a drug and alcohol rehab facility) moving out of Dunbar’s business district and in to South Charleston. The move frees up parking spaces for the public and will not have any negative impact on the city’s economy.

With the final goal of the plan, Dunbar hoped to improve housing by addressing dilapidated buildings. The LUSD has made a major focus on combating dilapidated housing throughout the state, and Dunbar has been effective in carrying out work to proactively address the situation. Since the plan was enacted, Dunbar has created a vacant building registry to document all vacant houses. The registry includes yearly fees to the land owners and has led to the city aggressively going after dilapidated buildings. Cunningham reports that the city tore down 12 or 13 houses in the past year and made the land available for redevelopment. Unfortunately, finding an end to dilapidated properties is not easy.

The city has 4,236 properties, of which 9% are vacant – comparable to the statewide rate of 13.4%. Dunbar is still just as serious about combatting vacant and dilapidated housing.

“It’s just like rats. You’ll kill one and another one will pop up somewhere else,” said Cunningham, comparing dilapidated housing to an infestation. “For every one we get rid of, another one has entered in to the same task.”

The city has established use of the Home Rule program and approval for on-site citations of properties in violation of ordinances. Dunbar’s vacant property battles are not as bad as many communities throughout the state, but the city still hopes to combat the issue and protect distressed properties from damaging property values.

Grants of several thousand dollars to assist the fire and police departments have been acquired, but the city has applied for multiple others and is still hoping for success. These grants could assist with park projects and implementing other aspects of the comprehensive plan.

Because of the city’s impressive implementation of its comprehensive plan, Dunbar is a finalist for an award which will be given to the municipality that has most successfully carried a comprehensive plan. The recipient of the award will be announced at the Mountain State Land Use Academy in May.