We shouldn’t be so quick to bulldoze property rights

As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of home rule, also known as local control. I believe that the government that is closest to the people is the most relevant. Municipal and county government should have greater autonomy as locally elected officials theoretically are more accountable to local voters. However, there is a caveat – constituents must keep a close eye on them and there must be an unwavering dedication to the rule of law supported by a strong legal system.

Recent happenings in West Virginia give credence to this caveat. There have been a rash of stories concerning problems, alleged and otherwise, with local governments around the state. Highlights (or rather lowlights) include: a former circuit clerk in Logan County who pleaded guilty to a kickback scheme; in Mingo County a judge was sentenced to 50 months in prison and a former prosecutor pleaded guilty to depriving a defendant of his right to counsel; the mayor of Bridgeport has been indicted on federal drug charges; the list goes on.

Then there’s the issue of property rights and eminent domain over in Clarksburg.

There is a lot more to this story than I have space for here, but it deals with an important right that we all cherish: our constitutional right to feel secure regarding our person and our property. It involves what has been described by some as an aggressive urban renewal plan on the part of the city of Clarksburg. Others describe it in decidedly less glowing terms. There are several property owners in Clarksburg who allege that they have had dozens of properties seized by the city and demolished without due process.

There are allegations that the city doesn’t give the property owners the ability to address the notices of violation of the state building code, including claims that notices of condemnation and demolition have been served on the same day, giving no opportunity for redress.

According to The Charleston Gazette: “We’ve torn down over 400 buildings, the bulk of those since 2005,” said Clarksburg City Manager Martin Howe.

He said city officials have been working on an ongoing program to clean up substandard properties in town. “If property owners can’t keep up their property, they need to think about getting into another business,” he said.

That would sound reasonable on its face if not for an important recent development.

A complaint filed with the West Virginia State Fire Commission alleges that the Code Enforcement Officers employed by the city of Clarksburg were not certified and were not qualified to act in that capacity. The complaint was brought by Harpers Ferry resident Greg Hall, who grew up not far from Clarksburg and has had several properties demolished by the city. He alleges that he was denied due process in the demolitions and has never been compensated for the taking of any of his property.

At its quarterly meeting last month, the Fire Commission found that there was “probable cause” for the complaint and is investigating the matter. Based on the ruling by the Fire Commission, the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office has issued a cease and desist order against the city of Clarksburg pending further investigation. I will endeavor to update this story as it develops.

There are several property owners in Clarksburg who have filed suit against the city, including Hall. Beyond the alleged financial pain involved, there are critically important issues at stake here. Most people think of the Fifth Amendment as the right to remain silent, but it also says, “nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” This was an important part of the debate over PATH here in Jefferson County.

There are economic consequences as well.

Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto, who served as advisor to both Presidents Reagan and Clinton, asserts that poor countries are doomed to remain so in the absence of a strong legal code that includes the recognition of private property.

There cannot be prosperity without rule of law and the recognition and protection of property rights. This is something that needs careful consideration if West Virginia is to truly be “Open for Business,” as the sign says as we enter our beloved home state. We also need to look at how we can help rather than hinder entrepreneurship.

As for the city of Clarksburg, rumor has it that it is considering applying for West Virginia’s Home Rule program. Before it does, perhaps it should address the allegations raised by Mr. Hall and the other property owners in their fair city first.  To be continued…

— Elliot Simon writes

from Harpers Ferry

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One Response to We shouldn’t be so quick to bulldoze property rights

  1. Elliot, interesting comments. The other side of the story has not been heard. Several of these property owners have taken their accusations to the county Circuit Court and have lost their arguments about the legality of the processes which led to the condemnations. Many of the condemned properties in question had been the subject of complaints by neighbors for being crack houses; or the places where multiple crimes have occurred. The properties have not been kept up. What the slum landlords refused to do has led to the results. An irresponsible landlord who abandons his responsibility winds up with a house in disrepair. There is no interest in repairing after a certain point because there would be no return on their investment and it is easier money for them to rent to the criminal-slim balls and eventually walk away from it all together. The county Democratic Exec Committee chair is behind this wearing the hat of the president of the local Landlord Association. He is a former councilman who led a committee for at least two years to revise the city building code. He turned out to be all talk and never changed a thing. His committee members stopped going to his meetings because they just turned into his complaints and axe-grinding about how unfair the code has been to the properties he owned.

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