Towns, Cities Need Flexibility

Dilapidated structures are a concern in towns and cities throughout West Virginia. Local government officials sometimes complain their hands are tied by state law in dealing with property owners who cannot or will not repair and maintain their buildings.

Last week, members of the Brooke-Hancock Planning and Development Council discussed the issue, with panel Chairman Mark Henne pleading for legislators to “take the handcuffs off.”

Henne said a workshop on the concern, held recently by the Northern Brownfield Assistance Center, was crowded with local government officials who want help in dealing with decayed buildings. “Something’s going to have to come from the state,” Henne stressed.

Something already has come from the state for a few cities, including Wheeling. There, using “home rule” authority granted by the Legislature, city officials were able to implement new rules that can penalize owners of rotting structures who refuse to do anything about them.

Earlier this year, legislators extended the home rule program, opening enrollment in it to as many as 14 more municipalities. Officials in some Northern Panhandle cities, including Weirton, have expressed interest.

Part of the challenge is money, as Weirton Mayor George Kondik explained during the Planning and Development Council meeting. Weirton Council plans to spend $50,000 tearing down dilapidated buildings this year. That is only enough for 10 houses, he noted.

Even if money was not a restriction, municipal governments often have to deal with mountains of paperwork and years of delays before they can do anything about decaying buildings.

Home rule authority may be part of the answer in some cities. But Henne is right: Lawmakers should take another look at laws on dilapidated structures.

Taking the handcuffs off municipal officials entirely would not be a good idea, of course. Property owners’ rights need to be safeguarded. But at least granting towns and cities more flexibility in how they deal with the problem should be explored. West Virginia legislators should begin looking at the challenge as soon as possible.