WVU offers legal tools to combat blight of abandoned buildings

By John Breslin | Feb 20, 2016

West Virginia University’s College of Law has published a toolkit to help communities to navigate the thorny issues around a major problem in the state - abandoned and neglected buildings.

As many as one in 16 buildings in the state are vacant and abandoned, leaving some communities facing a seemingly overwhelming task dealing with the blight, according to the authors of the booklet, attorneys attached to the university’s Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic.

The publication grew out of the LUSD Law Clinic’s experiences working throughout West Virginia over the past several years, according to Katherine Garvey, the clinic’s director.

While the issue of vacant buildings in big cities has grabbed attention in recent years, Garvey said her team’s research found the problem is pervasive in many rural areas of West Virginia.

“We work throughout the state of West Virginia and almost everyone we worked with in these small communities of under 2000 said their number one issue was dealing with dilapidated properties,” said Garvey.

A team of attorneys fanned out across the state, to talk to to experts in various fields and, most importantly the clinic believes, to communities that have already successfully dealt with abandoned properties.

Her clinic’s publication, “From Liability to Viability: A Legal Toolkit to Address Neglected Properties in West Virginia”, is designed to give communities and their leaders tools to navigate complex issues, including property, tax and contract law, and even establishing ownership.

The handbook identifies the various tools available to attorneys, mayors, code enforcement officers, land use planners and community leaders, Garvey said.

It is based on dozens of interviews conducted statewide with experts as well as in-depth reviews of local ordinances. Topics addressed in the handbook range from prioritization and collaboration to codes, eminent domain and negotiation.

A lot of tools that are available assume “a really large planning department in a large city,” Garvey explained.

“What we were not finding were tools or recommendations to deal with that problems in smaller communities," she said. “I think a lot of the communities would say money was an issue but the process seems overwhelming, and they may not know the best strategies to try first.”

These communities also often find they are hampered by a bar on actions outside of those sanctioned by state statute.

As such, Garvey said, many have applied for “home rule” status. This allows communities to act with greater independence.

“If you look at those communities that have applied for home rule you see just how significant dilapidated buildings are,” said Garvey. A key reason cited for applying for home rule was so they could deal more freely with the problem of crumbling properties.

While the toolkit is designed more as a resource for the local communities and others, and she has not talked to any member of the West Virginia Legislature, Garvey believes it could give lawmakers some ideas for change.

Established in 2011, the LUSD Law Clinic provides legal services to West Virginia local governments, non-profit organizations and others to develop land and water conservation strategies and practices. The clinic also provides law students with an opportunity to gain practical experience in the field of land use law and policy.

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