Officials discuss distressed properties

Code enforcement issues frustrate town hall participants

ELKINS — A town hall meeting Tuesday evening featured a Buckhannon City Council member providing details about how his town has dealt with distressed properties issues similar to those facing the city of Elkins.

Meanwhile, residents expressed frustration with the job performance of Elkins’ code enforcement officer/building inspector, who was invited to the meeting but did not attend.

“We had about 135 properties that were out of compliance and we’re down to eight,” said Buckhannon Councilman Robbie Skinner, who had been asked by organizers to attend. His statement prompted expressions of appreciation from some of the approximately 40 people gathered for Tuesday’s meeting at the Elkins Depot.

The distressed properties issue has been the main topic of discussion for each of the town hall meetings in Elkins, which have been taking place each quarter for the past two years.

Skinner said the remaining eight distressed properties are owned by people who don’t live near Buckhannon. He said the city’s success in dealing with the issue has centered on structuring ordinances so that “if you’re out of compliance with one you’re out of compliance with a bunch of them, and if you have to go to municipal court you’re going to pay a hefty fine.”

He said when distressed properties owners are faced with being fined under a single ordinance, they will often choose to simply pay a fine rather than clean up the property or tear down the structure.

The local officials assembled at Tuesday’s meeting — including Randolph County Commissioners Mark Scott and Mike Taylor, and Elkins City Council members Linda Vest and Marly Hazen — expressed interest in Buckhannon’s approach to the dilapidated properties issue.

Skinner said effective code enforcement has also been key to Buckhannon’s efforts.

“We have somebody that’s not from Buckhannon and that’s probably one of the best things you can do,” he said, adding that a code enforcement officer or building inspector who’s from the community and “is old friends with people or related to people” in town can lead to verbal warnings being issued instead of citations and fines.

“We have the ordinances” in Elkins,” Vest said. “We just need the right person to enforce them.”

Skinner was asked by event organizer Kathy Vance how much Buckhannon is estimating to receive in code enforcement fines in the next fiscal year. He said he wasn’t sure of the exact figure.

“Is it in the tens of thousands of dollars?” Scott asked him.

“Oh, yes,” Skinner said.

By contrast, Vance pointed out the city of Elkins’ proposed budget for the next fiscal year estimates $500 in revenue from code enforcement fines.

The code enforcement officer/building inspector for the city of Elkins is Phil Isner. He has not attended any of the recent town hall meetings but has often been criticized by local residents during the meetings for a perceived lack of effectiveness or timeliness in dealing with distressed properties complaints.

Organizers said Isner was invited to Tuesday’s meeting, as were Mayor Van Broughton and city council members Christopher Lowther, Robert Chenoweth and David Parker, although none were in attendance. Broughton took part in the last town hall meeting, in January.

Skinner also noted that in Buckhannon “any fine is doubled” if the property is vacant.

After an Elkins resident in the audience suggested that Buckhannon “will eat our lunch” by becoming the central town in the region in the near future, Scott stated, “Over my dead body.”

Saying he meant no disrespect to Skinner, and that he appreciated his participation Tuesday, Scott insisted, “Elkins and Randolph will remain the hub of this area … It has always been the hub.” However, Scott acknowledged that “we need to fight” to maintain Elkins’ and Randolph County’s prominence.

Near the end of Tuesday’s meeting, a new Elkins resident named Mike Hayes asked the local officials in attendance to demonstrate accountability by stating exactly what they would do about the distressed properties issue this week.

Vest said she would speak with Isner and Elkins Operations Manager Bob Pingley today about the situation.

Elkins City Attorney Gerri Roberts and former mayor Judy Guye Swanson also attended Tuesday.

The next town hall meeting is scheduled for 5:15 p.m. June 19 at the Elkins Depot.