The City of Wheeling initiated its successful vacant property registration program in 2009 as a forward-thinking way to address the issue of abandoned and blighted buildings. Since an initial registry of nearly 400 properties, they have whittled the list down to 182 properties, highlighting the progress of the program over the first few years.
The City of Fairmont also recently passed an ordinance allowing for the creation of a similar Vacant Property Registration Program. Through an in-person meeting facilitated by the West Virginia Redevelopment Expert Exchange, the Wheeling team met with Fairmont representatives to exchange insights and discuss similarities and differences between the programs.
At the meeting, Nancy Prager, Director of the Wheeling Economic and Community Development Department, represented Wheeling along with Thomas Connelly, Planning Administrator, and Lisa Tappe, who handles the day-to-day operations of Wheeling’s Vacant Property Registration program. A fair representation of relevant functions from the host community attended, including the Fairmont Interim City Manager and City Clerk, the City Attorney, Finance Director, City Planner, Code Enforcement Officers, a City Councilman, and the director of Main Street Fairmont.
Catching properties before they become dilapidated is the goal. The Wheeling team stressed that they focus on incentivizing owners to put properties into productive reuse through the fee structure attached to the registration program, focusing on the intention of reuse rather than on collecting money. They cautioned Fairmont’s lack of a fee structure as potentially encouraging owners to perpetuate property vacancy with minimal upkeep. Fairmont explained that they intended to paint the new ordinance in a positive light by linking it to a new B&O tax credit which rewards vacant property reuse, rather than to use it punitively.
Although Wheeling’s team sat up front as a panel of experts, rather than give a lecture-style presentation, they almost immediately opened the floor to questions after a brief background about their Vacant Property Registration program. The session morphed into a back and forth exchange of questions between the two communities, revealing pointed differences in the wording of the code based on whether it was written under home rule, the nature of the ordinance as a carrot or stick method for affecting change, and what resources are involved in the day-to-day administration of the registration program.
Fairmont representatives asked Wheeling how much paperwork and how many hours are required of the program administrator, discovering that the planning department processes the fees as opposed to the finance department. While Wheeling’s Vacant Building Registration form fits concisely on one page to further encourage participation in the program, the registration is still somewhat administratively burdensome. Because of this need, Wheeling appointed Lisa Tappe, who also serves as a code enforcement officer, to handle the day to day administration of the program. It took Wheeling the first two years to work out the bugs.
Fairmont noted that they intend to distribute the responsibility of the new ordinance across different department functions, and after learning about Fairmont’s take on the ordinance, Wheeling suggested that it will require a significantly higher workload for code enforcement.
The meeting raised new avenues for both communities to investigate. Fairmont will review specifics of their new ordinance, such as whether code inspections will involve exterior or interior reviews, requiring higher staff levels, and will model letters and registration forms after those that Wheeling openly shared. Wheeling was surprised to discover that Fairmont had a Rental Registration Program in place since the late 1970s, which they have been trying to enact, and were also interested to see how the B&O tax will play out as an incentive to owners to redevelop vacant and/or dilapidated properties.
For more information about using Vacant Property Registrations as a tool to address blight in your community, visit the WVU Land Use Clinic’s LEAP toolkit here.
For a related story on Wheeling’s Vacant Property effectiveness, click here.
To learn more about the WV Redevelopment Expert Exchange or to request a match in your community, click here.