City takes action on vacant buildings

CHARLES TOWN – Charles Town officials say they’re taking the first steps toward addressing the city’s long-festering problem with vacant buildings. Last week, leaders were on hand for the demolition of an abandoned building on West Street and the proposed razing of another building is in the pipeline.

“It’s been a long-standing concern for a lot of folks in Charles Town,” said City Manager Joe Cosentini. “It’s a big step for Charles Town, that we are starting to take action on this, because it hasn’t been something, historically, that we have been this aggressive about.”

Officials originally identified 27 such structures, concentrated mostly in the Old Town district, that were both uninhabited and uninhabitable. So far three have been removed from the list due to improvements made by the owners. Wednesday was the first demolition.

“Most of them have owners, but they aren’t really doing anything with the property. So it is just sitting there becoming run down,” Cosentini said. “The idea here is that we get some of these other people that maybe own a house or two to sit up and take notice that the city is serious about this. Hopefully it will spur some reinvestment and get people to spend money fixing up their houses.”

Plans to begin more rigorous enforcement of the ordinance began some three years ago, Cosentini said.

A board composed of Mayor Peggy Smith, Council Member Rich Bringewatt and Building Inspector Scott Coyle, along with officials from local fire departments and the Health Department, has worked to identify the structures and to establish a plan to ensure that they are either improved or removed.

Cosentini said when an uninhabitable structure is identified, its owners are sent notice that they must meet with city officials to discuss the future of the property. “You need to come in and tell us what you plan to do with the property, when you plan to bring it back to this habitable state,” he said, adding that owners generally have 90 days to make necessary improvements.

If the property is not improved within the given time period, the owner is assessed a $5,000 fee.

Another option, if property owners do not wish to make improvements, is condemnation, a process whereby the city pays a contractor to demolish the building and then sells the property in order to cover the costs of demolition.

“The reason we are able to force the sale of it is because our lien is of such a value that it is equal to or maybe even more than the value of the property,” Cosentini said.

He said the elimination of vacant structures will help beautify the town and foster civic pride. “There are neighbors that take care of their properties, and they say, ‘We take care of ours. Why can’t they take care of theirs?’”

He said officials don’t hope to tear down all 24 structures on the current list. He thinks many could be brought back up to par with relatively small investments.

“You need windows, you need a new door, you need a coat of paint and you’re back to being a habitable structure,” he said.

Cosentini said the town plans to push particularly hard for improvements to structures that are highly visible or are near the entrances to the town.

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