Home status stuck in a legal limbo

NEW CUMBERLAND – Probably the only thing that’s not unsightly about the vacant house at 504 Jefferson St. in Newell are the purple morning glories creeping up the front porch.

The house is covered in vegetation, siding is falling off, and trash and debris litter the exterior. The front yard looks like it’s slowly becoming a pumpkin patch.

The Hancock County Abandoned Building Ordinance Committee wants to tear this house down but can’t because it belongs to the state of West Virginia.

The house is one of a growing number of dilapidated properties in Hancock County that authorities are powerless to remove because they are stuck in a legal limbo, said Gus “Chuck” Svokas, ABOC staff member.

“The result is dilapidated, unhealthy and dangerous buildings accumulating in the county,” Svokas said in a recent letter to Hancock County commissioners.

Svokas wants commissioners to amend the abandoned building ordinance so that the ABOC can do something about properties that belong to the state because of non-payment of property taxes.

Currently, the committee’s jurisdiction is restricted to properties in unincoporated parts of the county that are not owned by the U.S. government or the state. Because of the way the legislation is written, houses that have been conveyed to the state for non-payment of taxes are off limits, Svokas said.

Following a period of tax delinquency, the sheriff’s department holds a tax sale for such properties. Those that do not sell, or are not redeemed by the original owner, are conveyed to the State Auditor’s Office for public auction as “delinquent and non-entered lands,” Svokas said.

Often, such properties do not sell because of their poor condition, the cost of demolition or the cost of asbestos remediation, he said.

“We’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place with what to do with these properties,” Svokas said. “That has been our concern for quite some time. It just seems as though we’ve reached a point with these properties where we can’t do anything with them.”

Commissioners tabled the matter at their July 24 meeting and referred it to Hancock County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Lucas III, their chief legal counsel.

Svokas’ letter included supporting documents – interior and exterior photos – that show how the house at 504 Jefferson St. looked a few years ago. Its appearance has not improved, and a neighboring house has since been demolished.

Svokas did not know how many Hancock County houses fall under the “delinquent and non-entered lands” category, but the state auditor’s website lists 25 in unincorporated parts of the county that have yet to be put up for auction, four that have received no bids and 18 that have sold.

The goal of such auctions, according to the website, is to return tax-delinquent lands to private ownership so that counties can enjoy the benefit of the property tax revenues.

State auctions are held once a year, with the last one being held in June. Properties can be bid on through the deputy land commissioner at any time, as long as an auction is not scheduled.

The Hancock County ABOC meets at 4:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month to consider complaints about unkempt properties, dilapidated buildings, high grass and weeds, and accumulated trash and debris.

Svokas said he hopes an ordinance amendment will lead to more demolitions because the committee has been successful with other types of properties.

“Typically, the property owners cooperate in the cleanup process or demolition process,” he said. “They do it on their own. It’s been very encouraging – the response from residents we’ve dealt with.”

(Huba can be contacted at shuba@reviewonline.com)