House Finance Committee seeks more information on DEP demolition program

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Harold Ward says a $10 million pilot program to help communities across the state with demolition efforts has accomplished its goal of getting the attention of state lawmakers.

WV DEP Secretary Harold Ward

Ward got more questions about the program than anything else when he appeared before the House Finance Committee late last week.

Ward told delegates the program could use at least 10 times the $10 million amount it got in its first year. He said in a survey of city and town leaders the DEP received back 103 responses.

“We’ve already identified, just within DEP, more than $100 million in structures out there that they need help with,” Ward said. “This is a half a billion dollar problem in the state of West Virginia if not more.”

Larry Rowe

One of the goals of the pilot program, according to Ward, was to bring the issue to the attention of lawmakers.

“The importance of this project was to do exactly what it’s done and that’s to garner you’re interest, to let you guys recognize the need for it and the importance of the project to the state of West Virginia,” Ward said. “That was part of our strategy.”

Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, said he can foresee the DEP needing money for administrative costs to operate the program. Rowe said he would like to see the DEP offer expertise to smaller communities who have never been part of a demolition program.

J.B. McCuskey

State Auditor J.B. McCuskey has pushed the need for the state to fund the cleanup through the DEP’s REAP program. He told Finance Committee members Friday there are positive ways for the program to expand.

“It is our sort of vision to have a statewide program where we are bidding this out with large chunks of money to reduce the individual cost of every demolition and to give our local governments more control of what happens to it afterward,” McCuskey said.

Fairmont focusing on blight removal

In Fairmont, officials say blight removal is making a positive difference, and one of the best examples is the area along Pennsylvania Avenue between downtown and the Bellview neighborhood.

Fairmont Director of Planning and Development Shae Strait said residents can track progress on an interactive map at the city website.”The removal of blight has been critical in supporting a number of neighborhoods and their success in the future, and we’re beginning to see the signs of that as we change into the future,” Strait said.

MORE Interactive map of Fairmont’s demolition plans

According to Fairmont’s approved Home Rule Plan, properties that have been condemned and are waiting to be demolished can be purchased by the city to expedite the process.

“We have demolished about a little over 50 buildings over the last two years, and we intend to demolish another 25 to 50 this calendar year as well,” Strait said.

Strait said the city of Fairmont funds the process in-house as much as possible and handles each property individually. Each time the city negotiates to make a property purchase, councilors must approve it and any follow-up work needed. In late 2021, councilors approved ordinances for four properties on Bellview Avenue, State Street, and two others on Walnut Street.

During that sale, the city generated about $10,000 in revenue and placed the properties back on the tax rolls.

“For about seven years now, city council has been allocating funding directly out of the general fund, so most of Fairmont’s work has not been grant funded,” Strait said.

In 2015, the West Virginia Legal Education to Address Abandoned and Neglected Properties estimated there were 300 vacant or dilapidated buildings in Fairmont. According to Strait, that number has dropped to about 100 today.

“We’ve seen a number of private land owners and contractors come in to purchase some of these properties, and we expect to see an increase in building permits this year for some new single-family homes or even townhomes,” Strait said.

Another type of success story is in downtown Fairmont with a company called Loving West Virginia. The Morgantown-based business is using sweat equity to prevent a downtown building from falling into blight while bringing a local small business to the city.

“So, we can see a mix there, some owners are hesitating to work with us, while others are very receptive and will even give us permission, if they don’t have the means to do so, to intervene, step in, and get these blighted buildings removed,” Strait said.

MetroNews reporter Mike Nolting contributed to this story. 

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