Landlords address meth liability issues

BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon landlords with questions about how a potential meth abatement ordinance could affect their properties met with public officials Tuesday in a special Buckhannon City Council working session.

The session was scheduled after the first reading of the ordinance was tabled May 1 to further address the landlords’ questions and concerns. The ordinance would require the abatement of properties wherein controlled substances, such as meth labs, have created a residue that renders the building a health concern.

Both Buckhannon Mayor Kenneth Davidson and Brandon Lewis, the program coordinator for the Clandestine Drug Laboratories Remediation Program for the state of West Virginia, said the meth abatement requirements are state law and that an ordinance would allow a designated individual, such as the code enforcement officer, to place signs on the property and notify owners and tenants that it is no longer safe until the proper testing and – if necessary – the proper clean-up can be completed.

“I saw an article in the newspaper that you all were coming up with a meth ordinance and I was very pleased,” Lewis said. “I was very happy.”

Lewis said he is the only state employee who can tag the properties.

“I’m a one-man show,” Lewis said. “I may get told about a meth lab up here today while I’m heading back to Charleston. I may not make it back up here for two or three weeks. I may be in the Northern Panhandle, or over in the Eastern Panhandle, or over in the southern coal fields.

“So if a city has its own ordinance in place, to where they can go ahead and tag a property with signage, let the property owner know that it’s not safe to have people inside there, that nothing can be removed from that dwelling until it’s been tested and proven safe, then that’s great. That takes some of the pressure off of me to try to get places very quickly.”

“I think the whole purpose of us having our ordinance is so we can begin to take action,” Davidson said. “We can get people out of a building. We can put the notices up on our own authority.”

Some landlords in Upshur County say they are concerned they’re the ones who will be responsible for footing the bill for the requirement to test their properties for controlled substance residue if their tenant is the offender who is caught and arrested.

Several landlords in attendance said it was “unfair” and that “the landlords really are the victims.” Some own multiple properties, and controlled substance contamination in an apartment conjoined to another building could cross-contaminate the other building.

Jay Hollen, a city engineer and local landlord, said he is concerned about the landlords who own multiple rental properties because it could become a greater expense on those individuals if multiple tenants are found to be cooking meth or are involved with other controlled substances in the home. Davidson said it would still be the responsibility of the property owners even if Buckhannon didn’t pass an ordinance.

“Us passing this ordinance doesn’t change who pays,” Davidson said.

Lewis said that in the worst-case scenario, the fee to test the property could be as much as $1,000, but that it typically ranges around $500-$600.

“Our ordinance says everything is the landlord’s responsibility,” Jody Light, a local landlord and the treasurer of the Landlords Association in Buckhannon, said. “That’s our concern.”

Lewis said that was the case because somebody would have to pay for it up front.

“What if they can’t (pay for it)?” Light asked.

The ordinance proposal states there can be a daily fine of $500 for non-compliance with the ordinance. Lewis said that non-compliance could result in possible fines, compliance orders and violations at the state level.

“People will say to me, ‘what are you going to do, fine me if I don’t do it?'” Lewis said. “I don’t need to fine you because if you move somebody in that house, and they get sick, they’ll sue you and you won’t have to worry about anything.

“Yeah, it’s a loss of income, but the fact remains it happened to you. It’s no one else’s fault except the person who was renting your property… the bottom line is there is restitution there that has to be brought up in the court. Our law says that the owner of the property is responsible for paying to have it done, but it also says that you can go after the person who caused it.”

Landlords also raised concerns that tagging a property could cause residents to be homeless, especially in multifamily dwellings or college dormitories.

“It’s the doom and gloom side of this,” Lewis said. “You also have to look at the health side of it. If people are exposed to this, they could have some major health effects. That’s the part of the job I hate is telling an innocent person ‘you can’t live here. You have to leave for the time being.'”

Lewis said the law’s purpose is public safety.

“I’m not a doctor; I don’t claim that I am,” Lewis said. “If you get methamphetamine in your system you may as well be using… That’s why the law was put into place. It was to protect public health and safety, especially children.”

“We have a very serious drug problem in the Buckhannon-Upshur community,” City Attorney David McCauley said. “This is something that can help us.”

Councilman Ron Pugh said he believes the effort outlined by the ordinance should be a joint operation between the county and Buckhannon. Upshur County Commission President J.C. Raffety also attended the meeting.

“This (ordinance) has not been an issue that has been presented to the County Commission to review,” Raffety said. “If such an issue were to be considered, we would have to sit down with all parties and determine the necessity and the methodology of putting together such a program.

“The one word I’ve heard here today, which often comes up any time you’re dealing with legal issues, is the term liability. Those are issues that are real. They have come up in the past… they have to be addressed promptly and directly,” Raffety said.

“As an individual, I can’t speak for the Commission because I’m one person, but I can only ask that if there is an interest in here to bring it to the Commission as a civil issue and cooperate with police, (that we) sit down with our counterparts in the city and discuss what is possible, what is legal and determine what path to take, if any.”