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Town’s long-sought power to move on blighted buildings kicks in July 1

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Boy, we’ve got all this authority – now what do we do with it? – Council suggested caution in starting implementation of legal authority to deal with blighted structures in town. Work Session Photos/Mike McCool

OH BOY, with a dose of caution thrown in seemed to be the Front Royal Town Council’s collective reaction to the coming realization of long-sought municipal authority to force action on buildings deemed “blighted” or “derelict” within its boundaries.

The Town of Front Royal will join a few other towns given the power shared by counties and cities throughout the commonwealth on July 1, at the start of the new fiscal year.  As explained by Town Attorney Doug Napier at a June 4 work session, the authority will come by way of amendments to the Town Charter approved by the Virginia General Assembly and signed off on by the governor in the past legislative session.

As summarized by staff in the agenda packet, in addition to its existing legal authority as of July 1, “The council shall … have power to make such ordinances, orders, bylaws and regulations as they may deem proper and necessary to carry out the following … powers and authority to remedy, remove, repair, and secure any blighted or derelict building or structure which are granted to any other city, town or county in the Commonwealth.”

“Now don’t name buildings, we don’t want to be pointing fingers – use letters (as code for specific structures),” Mayor Hollis Tharpe warned council as the discussion began.

Yea, I think this building would have qualified 10 years ago, if not more – but no need now, after a controversial swap and several years of EDA marketing the 150-year-old Afton Inn is on the path to renovation and reconstruction. File Photos/Roger Bianchini

The legal staff summary points out that, “While this does not give the Town carte blanche to do what it wants, because of constitutional limitations on dealing with private property, it does give the Town more latitude…”

That latitude includes:

  • Adoption of “a vacant derelict building registration program, on pain of civil fine for failure to comply”. It is noted the Towns of Clifton Forge and Pulaski already have such ordinances;
  • With the assistance of Warren County, within which the town lies, “cause the sale of blighted or derelict buildings, then use the City of Richmond’s statutory authority to purchase the blighted property for the nominal sum of $1.00 (one dollar), and turn around and sell the property to a (buyer) who must in turn bring the property in compliance with the Building Code within two years”;
  • “Require removal or repair of buildings that are derelict, and if the owner does not do so, the locality may affect the removal and repair, and recover the costs from the owner”;
  • “Cause the abatement or removal of buildings and structures that constitute public nuisances”.

Other options enabled include adoption of a Real Estate Tax Abatement Program offering blighted structure owners tax abatements over 15 years that equal either the cost of demolition or the increase in the fair market value of the property from improvements; and creation of a Redevelopment and Housing Authority with “the power to engage in spot abatement and redevelopment programs to clean up, repair and even purchase derelict and blighted buildings, and to redevelop areas of the Town that are felt necessary for redevelopment.”

Of that last option legal staff noted that federal and state funds may be available to help in creating such authorities.

And the Town may continue enforcement of its tall grass, weed and refuse ordinance; as well as reconsider the recently derailed adoption of a property maintenance code and rental inspection district “when the Town’s finances are on a firmer basis”.

The rear of another vacant, deteriorating building referenced – not by letter – in earlier council discussion of municipal derelict structure authority.

Following review of the new powers the council will posses as of July 1, 2018, Councilman Jacob Meza asked if they applied only to vacant buildings. – “Vacant or structurally unsafe,” Town Attorney Napier replied.

Asked who would determine if a building was structurally unsafe, Napier replied either a building inspector – which the county, but currently not the town has – or the town engineer, which is an existing position.

Mayor Hollis Tharpe asked if there would be any council objection to having select town staff (Napier and Planning Director Jeremy Camp were named) meet with the appropriate Winchester staff that deals with that city’s blighted and derelict structure codes.

“I’m in favor of that,” Councilman Meza said, observing that he thought Winchester did a good job with its program, including blending its police department into the enforcement aspect.

Jacob Meza, foreground, thinks first consulting an experienced Winchester City staff on their program is a good idea. Gene Tewalt, to left, has long lobbied for this authority, but now worries about creating a viable infrastructure necessary for enforcement.

Vice-Mayor Eugene Tewalt has been a leading proponent of the town achieving such authority; however, he suggested care in getting the program off the ground.  He pointed out that the town does not currently have its own inspectors, as cities like Winchester generally do.

“I think we should do this fairly simple – I don’t want to create a monster,” Tewalt said.

“That’s why we’ll meet with Winchester – see what works, what doesn’t,” Napier replied.

William Sealock pointed to Warren County’s Building Inspection Department, asking if the town couldn’t at least initially utilize it to help launch the derelict and blighted structure program.

However, Mayor Tharpe countered, “Nope, it’s our party and we don’t want to intrude on them.”

“Well, we should crawl first before we run,” Sealock said of getting the program off the ground.

William Sealock, cap, suggested ‘crawling’ before ‘running’ into the enforcement realm. A council majority agreed it was wise to research successful municipal programs before rushing forward.

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