By Stephen Smoot
A half century ago, the State of West Virginia started its war on eyesores that distract from its scenic beauty. It started with the Rehabilitation Environmental Action Program championed by A. James Manchin, appointed as program director by Governor Arch Moore. The program removed over 5,000 junked cars from the landscape in its first year
In the past two years, the state has taken aim at an even bigger and more dangerous problem, not junked cars, but junked buildings, better known as “dilapidated structures.”
For Shinnston the problem is on the level of a minor to moderate public nuisance. Other communities, like Piedmont in Mineral County, helplessly watched as non natives bought up properties at tax sales and neither improved nor maintained them.
Such properties not only ruin the view of a town or city, but also pose a threat. They serve as magnets for curious children or criminals. Homeless often move in and build fires inside during cold weather, which pose a serious danger through the spread of fire. Drug dealers also find dilapidated structures as perfect havens for their endeavors.
Tori Drainer, interim city manager for Shinnston, stated that “they’ve got no utilities. The roofs are falling in. Homeless people move in and start fires in them. We don’t want to endanger our fire department with this.”
Last week, House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw also noted that dilapidated structures occupy land on which affordable housing could be constructed. The lack of such housing has emerged as an economic development impediment in the past several years statewide.
Drainer has led the effort to identify problem structures in town and prioritize the removal of the worst with the help of a $112,000 grant from the state.
“We tore down the most dangerous ones first,” Drainer said. The process of selection centered around surveying Shinnston police and fire units on which they’d least want to enter. The city has removed three so far with four more planned for removal soon. The City is “going through the court process to . . . get right of entry.”
She also explained that the city’s code enforcement officer will help “to identify the next round” of buildings subject to removal.
State law and policy formerly allowed out of state investors to acquire tax sale properties with ease, but never held them accountable for what happened to them. State Auditor J. B. McCluskey told The Review last year “to be fair, we were part of the problem . . . promoting out of state buyers who didn’t have community interests at heart” and “didn’t care that they were destroying communities.”
The reformed sale structure gave struggling landowners more helpful options to work on paying their taxes if they fell behind. It also worked to ensure that properties sold ended up in the hands of those working for development.
Beyond the safety and housing issue, Drainer explained that “we want our city to be beautiful.” She added that “we’re being proactive. We have enough people on our side to make this a beautiful city. My goal is to keep getting grants for this.”