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.
- —Richwood has identified 110 abandoned structures in a population of 2,000 people.
- —Fairmont has identified 300 vacant or dilapidated buildings in a town of about 19,000 people and about 9 square miles. 3
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.
Structure of the Toolkit
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.
Themes to Keep in Mind
There are several basic principles that communities effectively dealing with neglected properties embrace in their strategies. Those principles appear repeatedly throughout this toolkit:
- Proactive behavior. Maintaining properties in good condition is more cost effective than addressing properties that have already been abandoned. For this reason, the Building Code is the first fundamental tool. Similarly, a proactive process to prioritize and identify properties is preferable to a complaint-based system.
- Collaboration, partnerships, and communication. Effective communication with partners is essential to address neglected properties. Three tools highlight the importance of these relationships: Collaboration with Key Players, Negotiating with Stakeholders, and Partnerships with Financial Institutions.
- Regionalism. Addressing neglected properties is expensive and complex. Often, combining forces with other local governments to share resources and lessons learned can be mutually beneficial. For example, see Subsection on Sharing a Building Inspector in Section on the Building Code.
- A holistic, community-based approach. Unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all strategy will apply to all West Virginia communities. If a silver bullet existed for dealing with neglected properties, the problem would not be as widespread. Rather, successful communities determine their specific needs and work with available resources to meet them. A wide variety of successful approaches exist, even in small communities with limited resources, but successful approaches tend to be tailor-made based on communities’ strengths, weaknesses, and ability to collaborate.
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.
Consult with an Attorney
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
- Identify properties by receiving a complaint from a citizen, by conducting formal inspections, or by creating an inventory. Depending on the community, certain complaints go to the police department, the city clerk, or the code enforcement office.
- If the community has adopted the building code, a code enforcement officer may inspect the property to evaluate whether a landowner has violated a city code.
- If a code provision has been violated, a warning or citation may be issued.
- If the owner refuses to comply, the community may continue to issue citations and fines.
- If the owner continues to refuse to comply, the community may decide to repair or remedy the violation and place a lien on the property to cover costs.
- In extreme circumstances, the community may condemn the property through eminent domain to take ownership and find an alternate use.
To Request Technical Assistance
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.
- American FactFinder: Community Facts Search, U.S. CenSUS BUreaU, http://fact nder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml (search “West Virginia”; then select “Housing” tab; follow the “Selected Housing Characteristics” hyperlink; and follow the “2013” hyperlink). The survey estimates that 139,561 of the approximately 880,951 houses in West Virginia are vacant. Id.
- nat’l VaCant ProPS. CamPaign, VaCant ProPertieS: the trUe CoStS to CommUnity (2005), available at http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/documents/true-costs.pdf. “[M]ore than 12,000 res occur in vacant structures in the US annually.” Id. at 4. An Austin, Texas, study found that blocks with neglected properties “had 3.2 times as many drug calls to police, 1.8 times as many theft calls, and twice the number of violent calls as blocks without vacant buildings.” Id. at 1. “A 2001 study in Philadelphia found that houses within 150 feet of a vacant or abandoned property experienced a net loss of $7,627 in value.” Id.
- Jonathan Drew, In Appalachia, Groups Tackle Coal’s Legacy of Rural Blight to Make Way for New Development, U.S. newS & world rePort (May 24, 2015, 4:01 PM), http:// www.usnews.com/news/us/articles/2015/05/24/in-the-coal elds-dilapidated-sites-make-way-for-renewal.