The desperate need for new and creative solutions to deal with the problem of blight is one of the main reasons so many cities and towns have been eager to adopt Home Rule.
When a local government is trying to deal with a blighted property, the enforcement process can be time consuming, inefficient and often ineffective.
In an effort to create more useful local solutions, more than half of the communities in West Virginia’s Home Rule Pilot Program have passed ordinances allowing them to issue on-site citations.
In these communities, city officials now have the authority to issue citations “on the spot” – much like a traffic ticket – to property owners when their buildings are in breach of local property maintenance standards.
Before issuing a citation, enforcement officials first issue a Notice of Violation (NOV), which bears no monetary consequence. If a property owner fails to address the NOV, officials can then issue a citation. Once a citation has been issued, landowners have five days to address the violation before accruing a fine. Subsequent citations result in increasing fines.
Before enacting their onsite citation ordinance, the City of Martinsburg got word out about their newly adopted onsite citation strategy to make residents and property owners aware of the new rules.
They ran informational articles in the local paper and placed flyers highlighting common violations around town. Following their public awareness campaign, Martinsburg’s code enforcement staff completed necessary legal training and rolled out the citation program on July 1, 2015.
Martinsburg reported that the new on-site citation process enabled them to dramatically speed up the resolution of property maintenance violations. Between July, 2015, and November, 2016, Martinsburg code enforcement officials issued 792 warnings. Of these, 657, or 83 percent, complied after the initial warning.
During the same timeframe, 138 citations were issued and 59 percent complied following citation.
The City of Elkins, which implemented their on-site citation ordinance via Home Rule in July 2016, reported that “the ability of the Code Enforcement Officer to quickly address what are typically very public issues, has prompted immediate redress in most cases and ultimately, is improving the quality of neighborhoods throughout the city.”
In 2016, Elkins issued a total of 16 violations. Twelve of these were abated, 3 were issued citations and have paid fines, while one fine issued remains unpaid.
Traditionally, a code enforcement process involving an external sanitation issue could take weeks to resolve and involve a service of process, a court date, possibly a public defender, and a trial. Meanwhile, neighbors are often left to cope with the issue for months, or longer.
On-site citation is an alternative tool that cities can use to address nuisance properties, and it has resulted in increased and more timely compliance, as well as reduced costs to the community.