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Jefferson County targets hazardous properties

October 07, 2000

Jefferson County targets hazardous properties



By DAVE McMILLION / Staff Writer


CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Every time he made a trip to Charles Town, Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Ruland would look along W.Va. 9 and see the remains of a burned-out house.

Eventually, he decided something should be done about it.

"Does everyone have to look at that?" Ruland recalled asking himself.

Ruland and his fellow commissioners initiated action.

The commissioners wrote proposed state legislation that would allow them to establish a Property Safety Enforcement Agency, and presented it to the Legislature. It passed and the commissioners established the agency in April 1999.

Since then, the agency has investigated 32 cases of unsafe or unsanitary properties. Of the 32 cases, 23 have been resolved, said Jefferson County Engineer John Laughland, who oversees the agency. The houses were torn down, boarded up or repaired.

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Before getting state permission to create the housing safety agency, the county was not empowered do anything about many properties that posed a health or safety risk, Laughland said. The commissioners were particularly concerned about children being injured playing in abandoned buildings.

The commissioners had to be precise about how they worded the law.

They could only target properties that were "unsafe" or "unsanitary." They could not take action against a property that is "unsightly" because that is too subjective a term, although the law often ends up eliminating eyesores, Laughland said.

"In most cases, it's a side benefit, but it can't be the criteria," he said.

In the case of the burned-out house Ruland could see along W.Va. 9, there was concern that debris at the site could injure children, he said.

Although most of the properties that have been cleaned up have been houses, there have been other types of cases, including a chemical spill at a furniture shop along U.S. 340 and a pile of rubbish in Halltown, said Commissioner Edgar Ridgeway.

Ridgeway said Laughland is to be commended for the "headaches" he has to put up with.

It took a year to resolve one case involving a mobile home whose owner had to make a considerable investment to make it habitable by, among other things, bringing in running water. The health department and the electric company had to conduct inspections to make sure it was safe, Ruland said.

It would have been less expensive for the owner to board up the property, commissioners said.

The Property Safety Enforcement Agency acts based on complaints it receives from citizens. Laughland investigates the properties complaints are made against and, if it is determined there is a violation, a registered letter is sent to the owner requesting action, Laughland said.

If there is no response, Laughland can file a petition with the commissioners asking that they order the property owner to take action. Harsher measures such as fines or judgments can be sought, but most property owners respond to the registered letter or the petition, Laughland said.

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