Getting rid of dilapidated buildings

A building in Bluefield is seen being demolished in the fall of 2018 in this file photo. Local leaders are discussing how to address the dilapidated buildings dotting Mercer County, but nothing has been drafted so far.

PRINCETON — Abandoned houses, garages and other structures crumbling under nature’s relentless attack are common sights in southern West Virginia, so local leaders are looking for ways to remove such blight.

The cities of Princeton and Bluefield have programs for demolishing abandoned structures that have become a threat to public health. In many cases, the houses and other buildings are owned by families that have moved out of state. The cities have procedures such as seeking out the properties’ owners and placing liens to pay for demolitions, but Mercer County does not have a dilapidated structure ordinance to handle this problem.

“We’ve got to do something to address dilapidated structures in the county and holding property owners accountable,” Mercer County Commission President Greg Puckett said at the commission’s December meeting.

The county would need ways to enforce such an ordinance. Puckett suggested expanding the duties of Litter Control Officer Josh Parks to cover abandoned structures or contracting with Bluefield city employees part-time to inspect such structures.

Puckett said the county needed a possible ordinance to look at in 2020 and to include it in the county’s comprehensive plan, which includes possibilities for economic development.

County Commission President Gene Buckner said he was not opposed to looking at a dilapidated building ordinance, but he wanted to make sure what the commission does is approved by the majority of the county’s citizens.

Buckner emphasized that a dilapidated building ordinance would not be zoning. The county commission is discussing ways to remove abandoned structures, but nothing has been drafted.

“I don’t approve of zoning ordinances,” he said. “If we decide to do any kind of zoning, it needs to be done in a different ordinance.”

If zoning was ever enacted in Mercer County, it could be done just for specific areas such as the business district around Exit 9 near Princeton and not for the entire county, Buckner said.

A county dilapidated building ordinance would need to outline ways the county could recover the costs of tearing these buildings down, he stated.

“We can’t afford to go out and take several buildings down without some sort of way to get money back,” Buckner stated. “We need to go in with some more discussion on this.”

Commissioner Bill Archer said a dilapidated building ordinance could focus on “unfit habitations.” There have been instances when people try to squat in uninhabitable homes. Archer added that he has been looking at the ordinances used in other counties and would like to learn more about them.

“I’d really like to talk to Raleigh County officials to see how their system is working,” Archer stated.

Puckett hopes the commission could start looking at a new ordinance next year.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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