BY TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB
It’s 10:05 in the morning and Sherrie Hunter interrupts herself. She’s been telling me about Beckley, about the city’s history and about how proud they are to host one of only a few state history kiosks in the local elementary school. But, we’re running behind on getting the Raleigh County Abandoned Buildings Board meeting started, and she’s a woman on a mission. She calls the meeting to order.
The board was formed in 2000 when the Raleigh County Commission appointed representatives from the Health and Fire Departments, the County Building Inspector, Law Enforcement and knowledgeable citizens to streamline the process of dealing with the wealth of abandoned and dilapidated structures in the county. Since then, the board has been able to put into place highly effective procedures for ensuring that county codes related to everything from junk in the yard, to structures posing public health and safety risks to the community are enforced. All without losing sight of the fact that many of the folks on the list are their neighbors.
Violations to the county code are either noted by law enforcement officials or, more often, are identified by a written complaint from another member of the community. Each one is given a case number and presented to the board, along with information from the building inspector. Members discuss the situation, weighing the circumstances and the action mandated by the county code. Many of the properties on the list have fallen into disrepair because of legal hang ups related to ownership, some of which can leave property owners unsure of who carries the burden of upkeep for months or years. Some are repeat customers.
“We try to have a lot of compassion, here.” Sherrie says, an aside to me as they discuss a recurring name on the list. In this case, the person in question has been in violation of the county code for several months, but is working to address the issue by fixing up his property. The board moves to defer action for another month to give him time to get the work done. He’s making progress.
Some properties, especially those cases in which the board hasn’t been successful in making contact with the property owner, or those who are in consistent violation are referred to the County Council for further action. This can eventually lead to the demolition of the structure, if it’s deemed to be a public health and safety risk. It’s a balancing act for folks on the board as they try to ensure a safe and healthy community while understanding that some situations don’t have a fast or easy solution.
For me, sitting in this meeting is illuminating, largely because I am still learning all of the complexities around the code enforcement discussion. One of the things that I’m delighted to take away from this experience, is the demonstration that code enforcement: boards like this one and the tools that they employ, such as abandoned property registries and code enforcement officials, can be highly effective without losing a sense of mutual accountability and neighborliness. It’s everyone’s community, after all. Want to join the code enforcement discussion? Taylor’s all ears. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get the conversation started.