Proposed demo list in flux

PARKERSBURG – A roster of more than 170 vacant houses in the city of Parkersburg, about half of which are targeted for demolition under a new initiative proposed by Mayor Bob Newell, is a working document very much subject to change.

“It’s really just an internal working list of inventory,” Newell said this week.

The mayor presented the inventory to Parkersburg City Council on Tuesday, along with a list of proposals for addressing slum and blight in the city. The proposals include borrowing $1 million, to be paid back over five years from paving funds, to raze dozens of houses.

Those marked for demolition were identified by the code enforcement department and code director Gary Moss.

“The ones he inventoried are the ones we get complaints on,” Newell said. “It’s not like we just went out looking for vacant houses.”

Moss said the list was based on the knowledge and firsthand experience code officers have of the structures.

“We got together and kind of (said) like, ‘Is this house fixable? Is it worth putting money into?'” he said. “Anything can be fixed, but you’re not going to throw $20,000-$30,000 into a house” when you won’t be able to sell it for that much.

Some of the buildings in question have suffered fire damage, had fixtures torn out by thieves, been vandalized or just succumbed to neglect over the years.

Before the demolitions can commence council would have to approve borrowing the funds to carry them out. And in the meantime, Moss and Newell said they are open to the possibility of someone bringing the houses back from the brink.

“That’ll be part of the process. Our saying yes doesn’t mean it’s coming down for sure,” Moss said.

Certified letters will be sent to the owners of all the properties for which demolition is recommended.

One of the houses, at 1237 Swann St., is owned by Lubeck resident Pamela Whitlock, who was somewhat surprised to hear it was included on the demolition list.

“We just got the deed to it two weeks ago,” she said. “We were planning on renovating it.”

That’s just fine with Moss.

“We would much rather see them fixed up than torn down,” he said, noting when a house is razed the city loses the taxes paid on it, there’s no one living in it spending money in town and often the city becomes responsible for care of the lot.

Harrisville-based Gas & Oil Inc. Vice President Stephen Ward said he was unaware structures the company owns at 1107 13th St. and 1106 Williams St. were being considered for demolition. He said both sustained damage due to trespassers stealing fixtures and, in one case, setting a fire inside while the company was waiting to receive the deeds bid on at a tax sale. It’s left him frustrated with city authorities.

“It’s just kind of ridiculous how they let these people run up and down the street and carry on,” Ward said, adding he felt the company should have been notified of the damage done.

The fact that vacant homes are magnets for vandalism and other types of crime is one reason Newell wants to address them. As for damage suffered by the homes, the mayor said he couldn’t speak specifically on the properties Ward was discussing, but the owners of vacant houses are the ones who need to take care of and secure them.

“They should have somebody up here … checking them routinely,” he said. “If somebody has a vacant piece of property, it’s really not up to us to mow their grass and keep them secure. … We’re not going to baby-sit these properties.”

Newell noted the list has already changed a couple times this week.

The city was notified that one house on Mary Street that nearly made the cut had already been demolished. And during his presentation at Tuesday’s Urban Renewal Authority, Newell said there were 85 houses to be torn down. Once the structures already on the demolition list without the need for additional funds are removed, the number drops to 79. And four of those have been sold and will be taken down by their new owners instead.

“Our hope is … that some of these folks come in and do it themselves,” the mayor said. “If some of these houses are coming down, we may be able to borrow less.”

Whitlock said she and her husband buy and fix up houses, and they’ve bought several in recent years because of the downturn in the economy. She said she thinks the city’s focus needs to be more on rehabilitation than demolition.

The mayor’s plan calls for the elimination of business and occupation tax on renovations of vacant houses by contractors and a five-year B&O rebate for landlords who renovate or improve properties. But Whitlock said she’s not sure that will be enough to entice some people.

“No contractor in their right mind is going to build a house in those neighborhoods” where some of the houses in question are located, she said, because the sale price wouldn’t be high enough to justify the expense.