A showdown of any sort requires two parties be in disagreement with or opposition to one another. While it may disappoint some, the City has no intention or desire to engage in conflict with the population it represents and serves, as has been suggested. On June 30, the Inter-Mountain applauded Kathy Vance and a citizen group for the demands they purported to make upon the City regarding perceived inaction related to distressed properties. Then on July 6, this same newspaper reported on the presentation of the anticipated letter to City Council, and included quoted remarks from the author of the letter, local attorney and WV House of Delegates candidate Ty Nestor. Finally, on July 9 in the editorial section, the question was posed “How will Elkins respond?”
To the best of my knowledge, the City was not asked for comment or information in advance of any of these noted publications. In fact, with very few exceptions, no person who affixed their signature to the letter has reached out to the City to inquire as to the processes available or actions taken on any distressed properties within the City limits. Therefore, in answer to your question, we will respond to the letter presented to City Council on July 5 by Mr. Nestor and Ms. Vance as we would any other citizen inquiry made in writing or in person, with a well-considered, thorough and concise communication including information that we, as a governmental body, are legally and ethically permitted to release directly to the requesting party. We would also be happy to share our response with the Inter Mountain and hope that it is provided similar attention as was granted to the original request so that citizens may enjoy equal access to the whole story.
Until that time, I would offer that we, and by we I mean the City and members of this community, have fallen into a pattern of both finger pointing and self-congratulations that neither identifies real opportunities for improvement nor real measures of achievement. I think it’s fair to say that we all have the same goal – to eliminate, either by repair, reuse or removal, vacant and dilapidated properties in the City of Elkins. The fact that these dilapidated structures de-value neighboring properties, invite crime and generally contribute to a sense of unease is not in question. The question is what are we, you and I, doing about it? We could each make a list of accomplishments, and there are many to be proud of, but to date the only entity benefiting from the public debate over these individual lists, is the media, and I believe that we can all do better.
To help answer this question, I’ve been looking at what other communities around WV and the region have been doing to address the shared problem of distressed properties. The one thing I have found consistent throughout examples of success is collaboration. No one person, no one organization can do this alone. Thomas, WV took down a large, highly visible dilapidated building because of a partnership between the municipal government, the property owner, Woodlands Development Group and the WVDEP. By negotiating with an overwhelmed property owner in Fairmont, that City was able to facilitate the demolition of a downtown structure that had been vacant for nearly 40 years.
City government is part of the community and has tools to help – but the City cannot do everything for everyone in every situation. So, how do we, the government and the community of Elkins, move forward together on this issue? I don’t believe it’s by petition, legal action or dueling columns in the newspaper, but by honest, direct communication and collaboration. I would suggest the next and most important thing we can all write down is an inventory of authorities, resources and limitations. Once we identify our individual strengths and weaknesses, we can move forward jointly with measurable goals and action items.
I’ll start. The City has authorities inherent with its Charter and adopted in its ordinances which give us the power to contact, cite and at the furthest reach encroach on an individual’s personal property. We also possess labor and equipment to assist in code enforcement and demolitions. However, the City, as a government, is also obligated to protect due process and individual property rights, prioritize all the needs of the City and operate within a balanced budget.
What about you? Citizens have the power of representative democracy and can exercise their right to contact their elected representatives or city government whenever they have a question or concern, as well as attending and commenting during every meeting held by council and committee. Next, they have the eyes and ears of the community, both to observe and understand what is happening and to express their goals and desires. Finally, just as with government, private citizens’ labor under rules and restrictions themselves. Very few private citizens have the resources to pursue, purchase and either renovate or demolish dilapidated properties, nor do they have the authority to forcibly take action against another property owner.
So, I suggest that we refocus our attention and resources away from each other and instead on how we can collaborate to understand and address the issue of dilapidated properties and their residual effects. A great example of this type of effort is available in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, where in 2016 this community with the highest concentration of dilapidated properties in Allegheny County found a way to showcase properties as opportunities instead of problems through unique marketing and creative partnerships.
If the goal truly is to fix this problem, let’s start talking with one another instead of at one another.
Sutton is the city clerk for the city of Elkins.