Home Rule Could Address ‘Eyesore’ Buildings

Moundsville officials hope to have a stronger way to address vacant and dilapidated houses that are considered “eyesores” in their neighborhoods as the city prepares to apply for admission to the West Virginia Municipal Home Rule program.

According to Mayor Gene Saunders, Moundsville hopes to be one of the 16 cities chosen to be added to the state’s home rule program, which recently was extended for five years.

The program, which began in 2008, allows individual cities and municipalities to have more authority in governing themselves by changing laws, taxes or fees to meet the city’s needs.

Saunders said the program would allow the city to have “more bite” in forcing owners of vacant homes to take action with their properties by eliminating the 30-day extensions allowed for owners to renovate their property. The city’s plan also would grant the city more authority to claim a building for demolition if the owner does not fix or destroy the building by a set date.

Under Moundsville’s Vacant Housing Registration program, established in 2010, owners of vacant houses, whether dilapidated or not, must register their property with the city and pay fees on a graduated scale. If the property is deemed uninhabitable by the city, owners must address the problem within 45 days or face a fine. As long as the owner has made progress on the house, Saunders said, they can ask for a 30-day extension to make improvements.

However, Saunders noted extensions can be granted for years without any significant progress being made to a building.

Under home rule, he proposed, the city would be able to eliminate extensions and require owners to either make the necessary repairs or demolish a property by a set date.

“The extensions is where I have a problem,” Saunders said. “Somewhere along the line, we have to say, ‘It’s time for you to fix it up or tear it down.’ Where do you say enough is enough?”

If the owner has not made progress by the court-appointed date, the city would then have the power to take over a property to be demolished and put a lien on the building in an effort to recover the city’s costs.

“We want these vacant houses torn town, and the only way to do it is to declare it a public nuisance,” Saunders said. “I don’t want to get to a point of having to declare it a public nuisance or have people come into council to complain to take action. Vacant houses are an eyesore to the city of Moundsville, and we need to implement a plan to correct this problem.”

Saunders said the city will look to Wheeling as an example of how to successfully implement home rule as Moundsville’s Home Rule Committee draws up plans to submit to the state.

According to city building inspector Joe Richmond, there are about 100 vacant residential and commercial properties in Moundsville. He said around 75 of the properties are registered with the city, and about 20 buildings are uninhabitable.

Many vacant properties, Richmond said, are a result of elderly owners who leave houses behind when they move to a nursing home or die. It can be a problem when the building is left to the previous owner’s children, who may live far away, or if the owner did not have family at all, he said.

“Vacant houses affect the neighborhood,” Richmond said. “The property values of the neighbors are affected. We’ve had people squatting and the normal kids playing in buildings that are unsafe to be in. The goal is to keep them from becoming a blight on the town.”