CHARLESTON — A bill that will be introduced next month in the West Virginia Legislature would create a statewide program to pay for the demolition of dilapidated structures.
The brainchild of state Sen. Chandler Swope, R-6th District, the legislation, if passed, will help localities with the cost of tearing down abandoned houses and buildings that are eyesores and pose public health issues.
“I’ve been working on a program that will make state and federal funding available for reclamation of abandoned structures,” he said. “Currently, cities and counties are responsible and don’t have the money. McDowell County alone has 5,000 to 8,000 abandoned homes and hundreds of other buildings.”
Swope said he has written a bill to authorize the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to create and administer the program as an extension of the REAP (Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan) program.
“This bill will be submitted early in the next session,” he said. “I have strong support from House, Senate and Governor and expect passage.”
Swope actually started working on the demolition project initially focusing on McDowell County.
Early in 2018 he spearheaded the Clean Up McDowell Campaign that also includes bringing sewer, water and broadband services to the county’s communities.
The plan was to first focus on removing abandoned buildings and houses in the county.
“We decided the demolition and clean-up, what I call the low-hanging fruit, is the most visible to residents and can be tackled in the shortest amount of time,” he said at the time.
The county has been already been working on that clean-up for some time, “but has only four men,” he said, and the landfill can handle no more construction debris.
Swope’s idea was to enlist the help of the National Guard to dispose of the debris and start looking for money to pay for the demolitions.
But he quickly ran into an unexpected reality.
“It turns out, although the inventory (of structures that need to be demolished) is not finished, it will be north of 5,000,” he said last year. “I realized then the impact of what we are trying to do.”
With the cost of demolishing a house about $5,000, the price tag for McDowell County alone would be between $25 million $40 million.
At that point, he said he realized it would have to be statewide initiative to help all counties, with a continuing source of revenue earmarked for the work.
Swope took the idea to Gov. Jim Justice, who liked the concept and urged him to develop it, with the help of the National Guard.
“Last year, the Governor assigned this to National Guard but they were so busy they didn’t do it,” he said. “This year the Governor gave me the ok to write it and authorize DEP. We got it done and it’s ready to be introduced.”
Funding will be an ongoing part of the annual budget.
“The Governor’s staff has told me he intends to budget significant state funds and believes he can also get significant federal funds,” Swope said. “I can’t predict a firm number at this time but believe there will be a lot of zeros.”
Mercer County Commission has recently discussed a dilapidated structure ordinance, which will be required if state funds are used.
“I support Mercer County passing ordinances that will allow maximum utilization of this program,” he said. “State law already allows these ordinances so no new statutes are required. I have been keeping Mercer and McDowell Counties advised of this new plan and will make sure they are first in line to apply for funding. If approved, actual work could begin before the end of 2020.”
Bluefield and Princeton already have programs for demolishing abandoned structures that have become a threat to public health.
Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett, who spearheads the Keep Mercer Clean: Love Where You Live campaign, was an early proponent of Swope’s plan.
Puckett said the problem must be addressed because dilapidated structures not only hurt the area’s natural beauty but they also provide a haven for drug abuse and are a deterrent to economic development.
“We would be fully on board with working with the state in finding a funding source,” he said. “The county commission has very limited funding options to deal with dilapidated structures.”
Puckett said Swope is “100 percent in the right direction” and he is encouraged that this initiative is being pushed by him.
Money spent in this area is a “good investment,” he said, because it helps economic development as well as health and beautification, making the area and state a much more attractive place to visit, work and live.
Dane Rideout, city manager of Bluefield, is also on board and has talked to Swope about it.
Bluefield has an aggressive program to tear down dilapidated structures and Rideout said it’s possible the city’s initiative could help provide a model for a statewide program based on the process of dealing with homeowners and the legality end of it.
Contact Charles Boothe at firstname.lastname@example.org