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Litter hearing draws a crowd

August 26, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- The Berkeley County Commission in its regular meeting today is expected to adopt an ordinance that would give the county the power to seize and then sell property that owners fail to keep safe, sanitary and in compliance with building codes.

Commissioners at a public hearing Wednesday evening heard overwhelming support for the ordinance, which also would give the county's litter control officer the power to issue citations for open dumps and other litter disposal violations.

Prior to fielding comments about litter and unsafe and unsightly structures, commissioners received comments in a separate public hearing from three people about minor changes to the Berkeley County Fire Board's fee structure. No one spoke against the changes, which do not increase the fees that are currently charged, if paid on time.

About 75 people attended the hearings.

"It's steps that we can take in providing our litter control officer more tools to work with," said Commission President Ronald K. Collins, who thanked those attending for their interest in cleaning up the county.

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The last of at least 15 people to speak at the hearing, Berkeley County litter control officer Donna Seiler said she had received more than 1,000 complaints in the year she has been in the position.

Seiler, who is certified by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection as a litter control officer, submitted photographs that she said would illustrate the complaints she has been handling.

"As you will readily see in many of these instances, these conditions are unfit for human habitation," said Seiler. She said she has witnessed several failed septic systems and even raw sewage being dumped directly onto the ground.

One area of particular concern for the county has been Sportsman's Paradise, which was targeted in a clean-up effort last year.

John Foster, who said he recently moved to the northern Berkeley County community near the Potomac River, said he suspected that much of the proposed ordinance may have been written because of the litter and dumping issues there.

"There are folks there that do care, there are folks there that do try to keep the place clean, there are folks there that litter week in and week out on roadways and there are folks that come down and clean up behind them week after week," Foster said.

"So yes, it needs some teeth," he said.

William Zinner, president of Opequon Creek Project Team, said the group has removed nearly 10 to 12 tons of litter from the main stem of the creek and areas adjacent to it in Berkeley County over the last seven years.

"Ironically some of our (cleanup) event sites have been cleaned several times and the results have been the same each time," Zinner said in prepared remarks.

"This would be laughable if it weren't so discouraging."

The ordinance, pursuant to state code, allows for fines up to $25,000 and a one-year jail sentence. Individuals convicted of disposing litter also will be ordered to pay a civil penalty ranging between $200 and $1,000 for the cost of clean-up, investigation and prosecution of the case.

County Commission legal counsel Norwood Bentley III said that half of the civil penalty collected per conviction would be returned to the Berkeley County Solid Waste Authority for litter prevention, clean-up and enforcement.

The county commission, according to state code, is supposed to "cooperate with the county or regional solid waste authority serving the respective county to develop a coordinated litter control program" pursuant to a statute that was adopted in the early 1990s.

While much of the language in the ordinance already is in practice, Seiler said the adoption of the law will expedite the handling cases of unsafe and unsanitary conditions.

"What now may take anywhere from eight to nine months or perhaps even a year, actions (with this proposed ordinance) can be taken within a much shorter time," Seiler said.

To address unsafe and unsightly structures and land, Berkeley County's ordinance proposes the establishment of a Safe and Clean County Enforcement Agency comprised of county health and engineering officials, a fire company chief, litter control officer and members of the community. The county sheriff would serve as an ex-officio member.

Seiler has the authority to report unsafe structures, but Bentley said she alone can not condemn the properties because she still needs additional certification.

Seiler said the ordinance follows the lead and recommendations of the state Legislature, which has recommended counties adopt local regulations.

This year, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 627, which increased the civil and criminal penalties for littering and directed the state Department of Environmental Protection to organize a statewide litter reporting program, according to the legislation, which was sponsored by state Sens. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, and John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson.

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