The Municipal Home Rule Pilot Project continues to attract attention this year at the Legislature, as it does every year.
West Virginia has more than two dozen cities in the home rule pilot program, with more cities seeking to participate in the program each year. Home rule municipalities serve as a central space for innovation and creativity, and some of the most innovative ordinances to address vacant and dilapidated properties are happening in home rule cities.
The question before the Legislature this year is, once again, should the state keep home rule? Should it be expanded to include all cities, or eliminated to remove the preferential flexibility that it gives some cities?
Home rule ordinances for all municipalities?
A carryover bill (meaning a bill introduced in the House last year that didn’t pass and was automatically re-introduced this year) currently before the House Government Organization Committee would eliminate the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program and give all municipalities the authority to enact ordinances that have been put in place by current home rule communities.
Introduced by Delegate Kelli Sobonya, HB 2913 is intended to expand the authority of home rule across the state, eliminating the application and review process that cities must go through before the Municipal Home Rule Board to become a home rule community.
The Impact of Home Rule on Dilapidated Property Policies
Home rule has been a significant tool used by municipalities to expand their powers to address vacant and dilapidated properties.
Since the pilot program was started in 2008, 28 cities have been approved as home rule municipalities, and 23 out of the 28 have proposed some type of ordinance focused on addressing dilapidated structures within their municipality.
The most frequently proposed ordinance is an on-spot citation program. This is a program where city officials are authorized to give warnings and citations on-the-spot when they observe a nuisance or property code violation.
Cities that have already implemented this type of program have had significant success in reducing violations and blight, often through merely issuing Notices of Violation prior to issuing citations. For example, in Charleston more than 87 percent of violations were corrected prior to receiving a citation.
Cities have also looked at other innovative tools to address dilapidated properties through their home rule authority, including creating vacant property registries (now permitted for all cities), authorizing the city to enter properties to abate and repair nuisances without a court order and to place a lien on the property for the cost of the abatement/repair, and proposing to reduce the time for tax sales for property in significant disrepair.
We’ve put together a chart about each of the home rule dilapidated property proposals for those of you who are really interested. Fair warning, it’s based on the information provided by the WV Dept. of Commerce, and seems to be from late 2015, so updates may have happened since there. Here it is for you.
Potential Unintended Impacts of HB 2913
The challenge with HB 2913, beyond the fact that the House Gov Org Chairman has publicly said he’s against it, is that it only allows municipalities to implement ordinances that have already been enacted by current home rule cities. A number of home rule cities are still working to implement the ordinances they set out in their home rule proposals.
Even for cities that have been in the program for a number of years, there remains important ordinances they are still working to pass at the local level. It often takes cities multiple years to get all of their home rule ordinances enacted, and the vast majority of municipalities have only been in the home rule program for a year (24 out of 28).
If HB 2913 were passed, some of the most innovative and potentially impactful proposals to address vacant properties would not be able to be enacted by any city (because they haven’t yet been enacted by home rule cities). They would have to go back to being taken through the statewide legislative process for adoption by the city, certainly a step back for municipal authority to be creative and responsive to the specific needs in each of the cities.