WV communities seek solutions for abandoned properties



From the window of his office on the third floor of Fairmont City Hall, town planner Shae Strait has a good view of the homes and businesses beyond Jackson Street, and of the verdant hills surrounded by parking lots and narrow aisles.

“What I like about my perspective – not just the trees and historic properties, but …”

The strait points to a gray and white house that was once so dilapidated the city thought the only option was demolition. But then a private developer noticed the property and agreed to redevelop it. Now this developer plans to rent it out soon.

“If it hadn’t been for this guy, coming and believing in this building, we would have had to tear it down,” Strait said.

These sites are all over Fairmont: vacant properties requiring either demolition or investors. In 2016, the city compiled a comprehensive list of 125 buildings to target.

Fairmont has treated – using the city’s general fund and with the help of private developers – over 65% of the properties identified by residents over five years ago. But there are still hundreds of buildings, commercial and residential, across the 18,000-person town of Fairmont that are still vacant and, for one reason or another, are so dilapidated that they are becoming problematic.

The problem is not unique to Fairmont. A 2018 estimate from a WVU program for “BAD” buildings, or “Brownfield, Abandoned and Dilapidated” properties, estimates that there are at least 17,000 structures statewide that need to be demolished or significantly renovated.

“There isn’t a community that isn’t addressing this issue,” said Carrie Staton, director of WVU BAD Buildings. “They are in all communities of all sizes.”

In response, West Virginia lawmakers enacted a patchwork of laws giving local governments the power to manage these properties. In the last session, the Legislature even went so far as to create a pilot program, managed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, to establish a nationwide demolition fund. State that cities and counties can use for locally condemned properties.

But lawmakers have not given money to this program. And because demolition and redevelopment is expensive, smaller, more rural, cash-strapped communities do not have immediate access to funding to repair these properties on their own.

A problem that feeds

For those who work to deal with vacant buildings, this is more than just an eyesore.

“Environmentally, there is often asbestos and lead paint,” Staton said. “At a severe decay level, there is a more immediate threat that he could fall and injure someone.”

There is also no root cause. Many attribute the problem to the decline of the economic sector and the loss of population in West Virginia. When elderly residents die and leave their property to out-of-state heirs, those heirs may not realize what they are getting, or they may choose to leave the building vacant.

Fairmont planner Shae Strait has a photo of Fairmont hanging in his office. Photo of Emily Allen

Disasters such as floods or arson can quickly turn a structure into a problem. Other times, someone may move out of a residence because they cannot afford their mortgage. The bank could ultimately decide not to proceed with a foreclosure, to avoid the liability or liability of repairing a house, leaving the property in limbo.

There are also hundreds of properties blocked by the “tax sale” process. That’s when a house that falls behind on its taxes ends up being confiscated by the local sheriff’s department. If no one redeems or buys the property, it ends up being forgotten on a long list of structures in the auditor’s office.

“They’re not all dilapidated for the same reasons, they don’t all need the same resources to deal with dilapidation,” Strait said. “So to solve the problem and the underlying symptoms, we need a multitude of approaches. “

Several laws and little funding

Every year, West Virginia lawmakers pass new laws to address their local communities’ problems with vacant properties.

Seven years ago, they allowed counties and towns to set up their own “land reuse agencies,” called land banks in most other states. Prior to that, communities like Huntington had successfully piloted this approach to dealing with vacant properties.

More recently, in the 2021 legislative session, the legislature passed a law allowing city and county governments to sue banks when they initiate the process of foreclosing on a house and fail to complete it, leaving a vacant building. They also agreed to create a law to provide larger tax credits for the preservation and redevelopment of historic properties. At Fairmont, Strait said it helped with the redevelopment of Fairmont’s Cook Hospital and the old Miller School.

In addition to advocacy groups and programs that tackle the problem outside of government, including the WVU BAD Buildings program, which helps volunteers in West Virginia communities identify and plan abandoned and dilapidated properties, but also WVU’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic, Abandoned Properties Coalition, and West Virginia Community Development Hub – there are people trying to tackle this problem, from the state’s largest communities to its smallest.

But funding opportunities are rarer.

For residential properties, programs like West Virginia Housing Development Home offer seven-year loans to cities and counties that want to demolish a house. Funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for community development, which the state and several designated communities receive, can also help cover a handful of projects at a time. Governor Jim Justice recently distributed $ 1.7 million of these federal community development grants to eight cities and county boards for demolition projects.

But for small communities and those who can’t qualify for loans, it’s hard for West Virginia’s most cash-strapped places to cope with the problem.

“We’re just trying to find resources that would fund this program in a more robust way,” said Patty Hickman.

Hickman heads the Land Stewardship Program, a small, state-run, nonprofit organization that the Legislature established about eight years ago to deal with abandoned industrial and commercial properties, for the purpose of economic development and environmental concerns.

She and others have called on lawmakers to devote funds to the problem, but she was not involved in the latest effort that provides future funding for the problem. Senate Bill 368 establishes the “abandoned property recovery” program managed by WVDEP and redirects future landfill closure charges to the fund. Hickman says this provision, while it won’t provide money for at least a few years until the landfills close, could potentially create an ongoing and more reliable fund in the future for the problem.

The developers are making plans for the old Masonic temple across from the current Fairmont Town Hall. Photo of Emily Allen

“You don’t get to the finish line without getting to the start line,” said Senator Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, main sponsor of the bill.

Landfill closure charges are only a small part of the overall plan, according to Swope. They run at a few million dollars a year, while some estimates place statewide demolition needs at between $ 400 million and $ 500 million in total.

He is hoping the federal government will allow federal COVID economic development relief dollars to go to dealing with dilapidated structures, or that a multibillion-dollar infrastructure bill in Congress will include similar provisions. The senator says he is also arguing for some of the state’s upcoming budget surpluses.

“I’m going to wave my hand in the air and say, ‘Give me some money for this fund,’” Swope said.

Where are we now

At Fairmont, efforts to remedy dilapidated structures are diverse. For some projects, the city does the work itself, such as in the redevelopment of a historic Masonic temple across from Strait’s office, and the old town hall and fire department further down Monroe Street. .

In others, private developers saw the potential and demolished or remodeled buildings themselves.

A public-private partnership has redeveloped a block of properties less than a mile from Town Hall, including buildings that now house the Rambling Root pub and the Noteworthy Sweets candy store. Around the corner from these properties is the former YMCA, which the partnership is currently working on to find a redeveloper.

The old Fairmont Town Hall and Fire Department is vacant, but the city is hoping to redevelop it. Photo of Emily Allen

But as the city ticks off every property identified in 2016, more are added to the list every year. Strait says the Town of Fairmont has prioritized and invested in the problem using its own general funds. Not all communities can do it.

“For communities in West Virginia, especially our smaller and more socio-economically affected areas, funding is the critical part,” Strait said. “It’s easy to manage these things when you have a growing economy, you have cash flow, but when you decrease and you have left everything in place from that larger economy, it’s very difficult to manage. generate the income to address it. . ”

And as West Virginia continues to see its population decline – the 2020 US Census found the state had the largest population decline in the past decade, at around 3.2% – it’s likely that the problem and the potential of these vacant properties will only increase.


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