As many as 1 in 16 properties in West Virginia are vacant or abandoned.1 Neglected properties deter economic development, increase crime, and create safety hazards. 2 At the same time, neglected properties represent an opportunity for community revitalization. The quantity of dilapidated properties can seem overwhelming, but West Virginia communities are sharing and developing innovative strategies to successfully tackle these problem properties. In order to further enable revitalization efforts, this toolkit details legal strategies to address neglected properties.
A common thread that runs through all communities in West Virginia is the dilapidated properties within them. The spread of blight results in reduced property values, public safety hazards, and can be a barrier to economic development. Neglected properties affect not only a property owner, but the surrounding property owners, and the community as a whole. However, it is apparent that many communities have a desire to address these neglected properties. In the last few years, communities have been trying both traditional and innovative strategies to address neglected properties with promising results.
—Ann Worley, President of the Board of the Municipal League
Throughout this document the terms “neglected,” “dilapidated,” “vacant,” and “abandoned” are used interchangeably. All tools are appropriate for residential, commercial, industrial, and even vacant properties.
Part 1 describes steps for laying a foundation that can enable communities to strategize and take action. Addressing dilapidated properties is a long-term project that requires capitalizing on community partnerships and community planning. Part 2 discusses fundamental tools, tried and true strategies that have worked well for the communities that have implemented them. For example, maintaining properties typically requires the use of an effective code enforcement program and a registration system to keep track of vacant and uninhabitable properties. Part 3 identifies additional tools that may be necessary if fundamental tools prove inadequate. Part 4 elaborates on approaches to addressing neglected properties referred to as land banks. Finally, the toolkit summarizes three issues that deserve special consideration: historic properties, contaminated properties, and considerations when communities are enrolled in the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program.
There are several basic principles that communities effectively dealing with neglected properties embrace in their strategies. Those principles appear repeatedly throughout this toolkit:
While written primarily by attorneys, the ideas for strategies and tools in this toolkit were developed and improved at the local level by a variety of players— ranging from code enforcement officers to bankers. Before writing this toolkit, the authors conducted a series of listening sessions in conjunction with the Northern Brownfields Assistance Center. During these sessions, participants were asked to describe in detail their community’s process for dealing with neglected properties. Participants also identified the key barriers they faced. The responses from these sessions helped frame the strategies described in this toolkit. A more detailed analysis of the results, as well as the list of participants, is available in Appendix B.
The law is constantly evolving. This toolkit does not provide an exhaustive list of legal barriers or solutions and should not be construed as legal advice. Instead of relying solely on this toolkit, community leaders are strongly advised to consult with an attorney prior to implementing any of these legal tools. All tools included in this toolkit are currently enabled under West Virginia law. However, note that certain tools are only available to communities that have been selected to participate in the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program. Where relevant, this toolkit indicates whether counties, municipalities, or home rule communities may use the tool.
Traditional Steps When Dealing with Abandoned Properties
Limited technical assistance is available to help local governments implement tools in this toolkit. Local government representatives may contact the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic at the West Virginia University College of Law to discuss the need for technical assistance and whether the Land Use Clinic or other resources may be available.