Council passes vacant building registry

PARKERSBURG – City Council approved an ordinance Tuesday establishing a vacant building registry with a $100-a-month fee.

Mayor Bob Newell said the measure, which would affect houses that have been vacant more than a year that are not being offered for sale or improved, is meant to get people to take care of or sell dilapidated properties.

“I hope nobody pays it,” Newell said of the fee. “I hope people take us seriously” and fix up, sell, rent or demolish run-down structures over the next year.

The second and final reading of the ordinance passed 7-2 at Tuesday’s regular meeting in council chambers, with Councilmen Roger Brown and John Kelly opposed. Kelly made a motion to send the ordinance back to the Public Works Committee, saying it needed to be changed to protect citizens who dutifully maintain vacant structures. The motion failed 3-6, with only Kelly, Brown and Councilman Mike Reynolds supporting it.

Newell said he wouldn’t mind council sending the ordinance back to committee, but he felt it was unnecessary.

“To throw out everything because there’s exceptions out there is ridiculous,” he said.

Kelly told of a family who regularly mows the grass, puts out trash, turns on lights and does other things so no one will know there isn’t anyone living in the home of a relative who’s been in a nursing home for about five years.

“I drove by that house every day for years, and I didn’t know it wasn’t occupied until this whole thing came up,” Kelly said.

Newell said the houses that would be assessed the fee would be those that come onto the city’s radar because there are rodents coming from them or significant, visible damage. The house Kelly mentioned would likely never attract any attention.

The same is true, the mayor said, of a structure Broadway Avenue resident Mike Cochran spoke about during the public forum of Tuesday’s meeting.

Cochran said he and his wife bought a nearby house that had been an eyesore and spent thousands of dollars to clean it up and strip it inside. Today, it has no utilities and is used as a storage building for his family’s holiday decorations.

“Nine years ago, this house I bought was nothing but a salvage yard,” Cochran said.

Cochran said he would pay the registry fee, but he felt it was unfair because many problem property owners would not.

“Us honest people that does this are the ones that (are) going to suffer,” he said.

Newell said if the building meets code, it wouldn’t be an issue.

“We know these cases are there,” he said. “That’s why there’s an appeals process. We’re not after innocent people trying to do the right thing.”

Kelly said those individuals shouldn’t have to go through an appeals process.

“Mayor, we don’t have an argument here,” he said. “I’m just not sure what we have right here is exactly the way we need to go about it.”

Newell said loosening some of the restrictions in the ordinance would make it ineffective.

“If we change this or allow any of this, those guys (slumlords) are going to continue with the loopholes that were made for the little guy,” Councilwoman Nancy Wilcox said. “We need to make these people accountable or make them do something with it.”

Council also approved 8-1, with Wilcox opposed, an ordinance creating up to eight assistant fire inspector positions. They would be filled by firefighters on regular shifts, who would receive an additional $1,200 a year.

Newell has said the additional inspector positions would allow the Fire Department to enforce fire code violations and take some of the burden off the code enforcement department.

Prior to the council meeting, members of the Finance Committee voted 4-1 to refer to council two more ordinances aimed at battling slum and blight.

The first would extend the city’s business and occupation tax credit program for vacant buildings to residential structures and lower the minimum time of vacancy to be eligible to one year from two. Property owners that rehabilitate vacant residential structures would be eligible to receive B&O credits up to 100 percent of their assessment over five years, or until the amount of money they spent on the work has been matched.

The second would establish a similar program for newly built or rehabilitated multi-family dwellings.

Councilwoman Kim Coram voted against referring the ordinances. She had asked that the items be tabled until council could consider a new state law allowing cities to establish housing plans that include land banks and policies to fix rental prices so low-income residents can’t be evicted in favor of higher-paying tenants.

“It’s amazing what this law gives us the authority to do,” she said.

Newell said he felt the law Coram referenced was a separate matter.