Property Owner Says City Has Singled Him Out

Wheeling officials on Wednesday agreed to dismiss an attempt to force city resident Ron Bence to register a storage building he owns at 1718 Wood Street as a vacant structure following what they termed a “misunderstanding.”

Even though the municipal court case turned out in his favor, Bence – who owns a number of properties in Wheeling and has had something of a contentious relationship with the city over the years – wonders why officials are concerned about a storage building he says is well-kept when other structures are crumbling around it.

Bence appeared in municipal court Wednesday to answer a summons alleging failure to comply with an ordinance requiring owners of vacant structures to register them with the city and pay a fee each year they remain vacant. Code officials said they had been trying to contact the property’s previous owner for some time, and once they learned it had been transferred to Bence, they waited 45 days to correspond with him – again, with no response.

After conferring with Bence’s attorney, Patricia Kutsch, Assistant City Solicitor Howard Klatt agreed to ask Municipal Judge Don Nickerson to dismiss the matter. Kutsch doesn’t believe the ordinance applies to Bence’s structure – located in an industrial zone, where storage and warehousing are permitted uses.

Under the city’s vacant building ordinance, enacted in 2009, a structure must meet a trio of criteria to be defined vacant.

No person must live or conduct business in any part of the building, no utilities must have serviced the building for at least 30 days and it must have at least one code violation.

Code officials said the issue could have been resolved had Bence simply contacted them as soon as he received the notice asking him to register the building.

Following the hearing, Bence said he believes the city picks and chooses when enforcing code violations. He pointed to the conditions of several nearby properties, including a burned-out house just a few doors down and the weed-grown rear yard of the lot next to his, and a pair of garages on 19th Street that appear to be falling in on themselves.

He also pointed to a large number of downtown buildings that have remained empty for many years.

“Aren’t there things a little bit more pressing? … It’s well-maintained, and I’m using it for what you use a garage for,” Bence said of his Wood Street property. “You’d think they’d be happy it doesn’t look like those … garages on 19th Street.”

Following the hearing, city Code Official Frank Wilson flatly refuted Bence’s claim of “selective enforcement.”

“Nobody’s singling him out. … We’ve got enough to do without going around singling somebody out,” Wilson said.