Council: No jail for nuisance properties

PARKERSBURG – As the city works to crack down on dilapidated properties, officials are not considering one option a Northern Panhandle city is: jail time.

In Hancock County, the New Cumberland City Council unanimously approved the first reading last week of an ordinance that would add incarceration to the potential penalties faced by a property owner who did not remedy a “nuisance” situation.

Unsafe structures, pools of stagnant water, garbage, abandoned motor vehicles, overgrown weeds and brush and street or sidewalk obstructions that pose a danger or “annoyance to the public” all fall under the category of nuisance under the existing ordinance.

The city imposes a fee of $100 for each 48 hours a nuisance exists. If approved on final reading July 7, the ordinance would establish jail sentences of 48 hours for a first offense, up to five days for a second and as much as 30 days for repeat offenders.

New Cumberland Mayor Linda McNeil said Thursday this is not a step city leaders take lightly.

“It is a last resort. It is something nobody takes pleasure in doing,” she said. “This is done with great reluctance.”

But the city is faced with some property owners, who despite being cited, fined and taken to court, still refuse to comply with the law, the mayor said.

“We’re a little town of a thousand people, and we have been trying very hard to make our town look attractive to business owners and new residents,” McNeil said.

New Cumberland held a cleanup in April, offering Dumpsters and transportation for people to get their refuse to them at no charge, McNeil said. But some people didn’t take advantage or have let junk accumulate since then, she said.

And the city spent more than $4,000 to demolish a run-down structure on a property where more junk has accumulated since, the mayor said.

The jail-time proposal has been well-received in the community, McNeil said.

“We’ve had nothing but positive comments so far,” she said.

Parkersburg City Council members contacted Thursday were reluctant to embrace the option as the city develops ordinances and policies to encourage the rehabilitation or sale of blighted properties.

“I’m not for that,” Councilwoman Nancy Wilcox said. “I just can’t see putting them in jail. … I think we have a problem but I don’t think it’s that big.”

Council this week approved the final readings of an ordinance establishing a vacant building registry with a $100-a-month fee assessed on structures that have been vacant for more than a year and aren’t actively being sold or repaired.

A business-and-occupation tax rebate for people fixing up residential housing will be on the next council agenda. Mayor Bob Newell has proposed borrowing up to $1 million to raze more than 80 dilapidated structures.

Newell said jail time isn’t currently an option for Parkersburg. New Cumberland can do it because it has a municipal court that can hold jury trials and issue jail sentences, he said. Parkersburg’s deals only in citations.

But Newell said if the city had the authority, he would “absolutely” consider the jail option – as a last resort where other methods have failed, not for just any situation.

“Because we have people who buy multiple houses and let them sit,” he said. “That’s the kind of teeth you need, really, to get people to move.”

Councilman Mike Reynolds said he hopes the policies council is now considering will be enough to get owners of blighted properties to do the right thing.

“I’m all in favor of fining them; I’m all in favor of keeping them accountable,” he said. “I don’t think it’s (jail time) anything I would ever support.”

Council President John Rockhold said he hopes the city wouldn’t ever have to resort to incarceration as a means to get people to keep buildings up to code.

“I would hate to see it come to something like that,” he said. “I’ve got a lot more confidence in the people of Parkersburg.”

Councilman John Kelly said he couldn’t support such a penalty at this time.

“It would have to (be) an extreme situation, and I don’t know that we have anything in Parkersburg that would be that extreme,” he said.