For Charleston, vacant buildings present big challenges

Reprinted from Charleston Gazette-Mail

Charleston property maintenance inspectors Ron Coon and Cheryl Gaynor discuss upkeep issues outside a Hunt Avenue home that’s been vacant for years. Because the deceased owner didn’t name an heir to the property, the Building Commission doesn’t have the authority to demolish it, Coon said.

Charleston property maintenance
inspector Ron Coon discusses the
demolition of the former Capital Paging
building on Kanawha Boulevard. The
historic building had been vacant for
several years and was occupied by
vagrants at the time the fire was set. The
fire is being treated as an arson, though
no arrests have been made.

Crews work to salvage any scrap metal that can be recycled from a demolished home on Burlew Avenue. The house collapsed over the winter, but the Building Commission couldn’t raze the structure until it got consent from the owner. If derelict properties were a disease, much of Charleston would be quarantined.

Charleston’s Building Commission is finally enforcing an ordinance, passed by City Council in 2014, which addresses the vacant buildings peppered throughout the city.

The law requires owners of empty structures to register them with the Commission. The office has since compiled a database of nearly 500 properties around the city.

Vacant building registries are catching on in the Mountain State as a way cities can keep tabs on unoccupied buildings before they fall victim to vandalism, vagrancy and arson.

But the Charleston Building Commission still faces numerous problems in applying the law.

From deceased owners to demolition restrictions and fickle tax-sale investors, it’s unclear whether the vacant structures ordinance has the teeth to make a long-term impact.

A common scene

On a muggy April afternoon, Ron Coon, an inspector with the Building Commission, drives through neighborhoods with the most abandoned homes in the city.

The majority of shuttered properties are residential and lie in wards 1 through 4.

“The worst parts aren’t in the flats — they’re in the hills,” he says.

Coon stops his car in front of an empty home in the 1000 block of Hunt Avenue in Ward 3.

Weeds and thistles choke the front yard where a weather-worn post sits without a mailbox. Vines wind up the front steps to a trash-scattered porch.

The front door and windows are covered with plywood. Someone hastily spray-painted the house number onto its exterior.

But the home’s foundation, Coon says, is solid.

The owner died a couple of years ago and didn’t leave the home to any heirs.

“Eventually, the county will sell it for taxes,” he says.

“Looking at the outside, it’s probably a rehabable structure right now. In another half-dozen years, it probably won’t be.”

The story is all too familiar for the Building Commission.

When a homeowner dies and doesn’t name any heirs to their property, the commission is powerless — and the ordinance is futile.

The objective

When a building remains vacant after one year on the registry, the commission charges the owner a $250 fee.

The fine increases by $250 for each year the structure stays on the registry. If the owner’s balance reaches $1,000, the commission may file a lien on the property.

Since November, the city collector’s office has received $4,750, or 19 payments, from more than 250 fines it sent to property owners.

The system is meant to encourage owners of blighted properties to sell, demolish or renovate them, Building Commissioner Tony Harmon said.

“We’re trying to get it to where the public can access the list. There’s a good possibility that someone could find a property they’re interested in,” he said.

From 2006 to 2015, the building commission demolished 463 residences and 109 commercial structures.

With the registry now in place, Harmon hopes to see up to 100 buildings removed from the list annually.

The Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development allots funds to the Building Commission for demolitions, but Harmon must ask for additional money each year.

A recent budget amendment added $20,000 more to the demolition fund for a total of $210,000 assigned this year, said Brian King, the office’s director.

Several exemptions exist under the ordinance, such as a building that’s being actively marketed, is government owned or is at least 15 percent occupied.

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