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City demolitions could be on horizon

PARKERSBURG – It’s been more than 14 months since Parkersburg City Council voted to apply for $500,000 in loans to tear down dilapidated houses to address slum and blight in Parkersburg.

And it will likely be a few more months until the first of those structures comes down.

A number of factors have contributed to the delay, Parkersburg Development Director Rickie Yeager said. Once the two $250,000 loans from the West Virginia Housing Development Fund were closed on this spring, city officials set about developing guidelines to prioritize which structures would be addressed, something required by the Fund.

“We wanted a fair and equitable way to make recommendations to Urban Renewal,” Yeager said.

After the rubric was completed and approved by council acting as the Urban Renewal Authority this summer, the various properties had to be reassessed, he said.

The next hurdle is a financial one: No money was allocated to repay the loans in the current budget, which was finalized in March.

“Without it being budgeted in the ’15-16 budget, we’re not going to start doing work,” Yeager said.

The city has three years from when it first draws down money from each loan to pay it back. There’s zero interest for the first two years, and the plan has been to pay the money back within that time, before a 3 percent interest rate kicks in for the third year.

Shortly after being appointed by council in June to complete the unexpired term of Bob Newell, Mayor Jimmy Colombo said he wanted to wait until the carryover from the 2014-15 fiscal year was known and other financial issues settled before earmarking funds to repay the loans. Multiple budget revisions affecting city revenue and expenses are expected to be presented to council early in 2016, with an appropriation to repay $100,000 in anticipated loan funds among them.

“I understand people wanting to see progress, but it takes time,” Yeager said. “I’d like to see things move faster too.”

The demolition effort still has support on council, including Council President J.R. Carpenter and Urban Renewal Authority Chairman Mike Reynolds.

“I think that’s an excellent idea,” Carpenter said. “I want to make sure we have the income to pay for it.”

Councilwoman Nancy Wilcox agrees the program is still a good idea, but thinks it should have already started.

“I really am upset because it’s taken so long to get in. It’s not like we talked about this yesterday,” she said.

Wilcox said she thinks some of the disagreements among council members this year and a focus on issues that shouldn’t be a priority have held up the process.

In September, the Urban Renewal Authority approved proposals to acquire and demolish houses at 1310 Avery St. and 2610 Vaughn Ave. They would be the first to be razed under the program, which was part of an offensive against slum and blight proposed by then-Mayor Newell in April 2014.

Five more properties are expected to be presented soon to Urban Renewal for possible demolition. Another eight will be considered by the city’s Building Enforcement Agency – whose membership includes Colombo, Yeager, the city engineer, the fire chief and a representative of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department – Monday morning for recommendations to the authority.

“Then we will do larger batches of, like, 10 or 15 houses at a time,” Yeager said.

Once properties are identified, the city must initiate condemnation procedures and the eminent domain process, which can take several months. And the relevant documentation is only good for a set period of time, said Gary Moss, Parkersburg code director.

“I try to wait until we’re closer to the demolition to start any legal paperwork,” he said.

Yeager noted that, before stepping in, the city must also give property owners proper notification and a chance to address the matters themselves.

Jerry Helmick, who moved to the city two years ago, said an article he read in The Parkersburg News and Sentinel about Newell’s proposals encouraged him to purchase a vacant commercial property at St. Marys Avenue and 16th Street in July of that year.

“What I read in that article was hope,” Helmick said. “It is a long, tricky road sometimes, but he had a real plan.”

After waiting nearly 20 months for the demolitions to begin, Helmick is frustrated.

“We’re sitting there, wondering what’s going on,” he said.

Eliminating blighted property will improve the value of surrounding property in neighborhoods like his, Helmick said.

“I believe the value of my building that I bought for 25 (thousand dollars) will be more like 150, maybe 175 on a good day,” he said.

In addition to improving property values, city officials have said demolition would stop the city from using money and manpower to secure dilapidated structures and care for abandoned property.

Newell’s initial plan included spending $1 million to raze 85 houses, assessing a $100-a-month fee on properties that sat vacant for more than a year without upkeep and business and occupation tax incentives for renovating vacant properties.

The fee is to be assessed on properties on a vacant property registry. It’s money Yeager said the city would rather not collect, preferring instead to see houses taken care of or taken down.

“We’ve had some owners that decided they weren’t going to pay the hundred dollars a month and decided to take them down,” Moss said.

The demolition rubric assigns a property points based on criteria like redevelopment potential, structural problems, environmental contamination by asbestos or methamphetamine ingredients and fire damage. The higher the score, the higher the priority.

Moss said there’s an emphasis on fire-damaged properties that could prove to be safety hazards. The top property on the list, 1008 13th St., was gutted by a suspicious fire about a year ago and looks largely the same today as it did then. It is one of the properties the BEA will consider Monday.