Town hall calls for use of ‘drug house’ ordinance

The Inter-Mountain photo by Brad Johnson Kathy Vance, the organizer of the town hall series of meetings, speaks during the town hall meeting Tuesday at the Elkins Depot Welcome Center.

ELKINS — Elkins residents, including a Randolph County commissioner, asked at Tuesday’s town hall meeting why the city has not made use of the “drug house” ordinance Elkins City Council passed in 2016.

More than 35 people attended Tuesday’s meeting at the Elkins Depot Welcome Center. The ordinance, which became law in November 2016, is similar to laws passed in Martinsburg, Clarksburg and other West Virginia cities.

“This ordinance has been in effect within the city since 2016, but there’s not been any enforcement to this point,” Randolph County Commission President Mark Scott said during the meeting. “I can tell you, as a former city councilman, I’m very disappointed.”

The law states that if two felonies — including drug activity, prostitution or illegal gambling — take place on the same property within a 12-month span, the city can begin a process which can lead to an order of abatement.

Kathy Vance, the organizer of the town hall series of meetings, said Elkins was the second city in the state to pass such an ordinance. She added that officials in Martinsburg, which established a “drug house” law in August 2016, announced last year that city police officers had “cleaned out” 35 known drug houses within a 12-month span.

“What we’re asking is, if it’s working in other communities, if it’s working in Martinsburg, if it’s working in Clarksburg, then why can’t it work here?” Scott asked.

“People are tired of the wrong group of people running our town. And I’m not talking about political leaders,” Scott said. “I’m talking about the people you see out on the streets at night. We don’t want that group of people running this town. This is our town!”

Several of the meeting’s participants said Elkins police officers should be better paid.

“We’ve got a great police force,” Scott said. “We’ve got a very good and competent police chief. We need to give them what they need to be able to enforce our laws and ordinances.”

Scott added that “we are hoping” city officials will decide to use some of the revenue brought in by the city’s new 1 percent sales tax to pay Elkins Police Department officers better wages.

“We need to say to the city officials, ‘We want you to invest that money wisely.’ And police retention is a good place to start,” he said.

“We’re asking for cooperation,” Scott said. “Let’s get a plan together … We’re not going away. We’re going to continue to meet and to hold our elected officials accountable.”

Local attorney Ty Nestor, who at previous town hall meetings has offered to help local residents seeking legal relief from distressed properties near their homes, emailed The Inter-Mountain the following statement just prior to Tuesday’s town hall meeting:

“I want to stress that I disfavor litigation if it is avoidable. In my practice, I make every attempt to amicably resolve issues that exist among parties without resorting to lawsuits. The concerned citizens present at the town hall meetings before that of August of 2018 agreed with that approach. As a result, I drafted and presented a detailed letter to the mayor and city council outlining the properties designated as distressed by the city, including the ordinances it had at its disposal to address those properties. The intent of that letter and its open presentation to council was to let the city know how concerned people really were about this issue and to also try to develop a cooperative strategy to deal with it,” Nestor wrote.

“The city’s response to this approach was not well-received. It basically accused the town hall participants of being the town’s problem, as opposed to the approximate 30 distressed properties, some of which are filled with human urine and feces thereby endangering the safety of the community, compromising the safety of law enforcement officials, members of the emergency squad, and damaging everyone’s wallet by virtue of causing property values to decrease. Equally disturbing, is that the city’s callous response occurred despite three former mayors, who clearly know the city’s capabilities, openly voicing their opinion that something could and needed to be done. Interestingly, those mayors did not have this issue,” he wrote.

“In the two town hall meetings that were conducted before today I reiterated that private nuisance actions, not writs of mandamus as were initially contemplated, would likely be the only course of action concerned citizens could avail themselves to in an attempt to resolve the blight. Since August of 2018 I have met with several property owners, but only two had standing for a private nuisance action.

“With regard to the two property owners with standing to pursue legal remedy, I have been to the distressed properties affecting them, taken pictures, and even began drafting one private nuisance complaint so as to institute litigation. I am performing these services for free because it is the right thing to do and I do not let the politics of things interfere with my judgment and professional discretion,” Nestor wrote.

“It does, however, take a person willing to sue before I can be of assistance, and for whatever reason those potential claimants have not authorized me to go forward. One potential claimant decided the morning following our meeting that because of his health and surgery he wanted to wait — the other needed to talk to the other co-owners of the affected property and I have not heard back from her,” the email states.

“I hope the city’s distressed property committee and its newly realized tax revenue will address this issue so that litigation will not be required. Regardless, I said I would help, and if you have a viable claim I will be here for you. That’s all I can do.”