City Hall News: Week of May 23, 2022

Meeting this week are the Elkins Planning Commission and the Elkins Board of Zoning Appeals. Also meeting are council’s Municipal Properties Committee, ad hoc ARPA Advisory Committee, ad hoc Organizational Audit Committee, and Rules & Ordinances Committee.

The Planning Commission meets virtually Monday at 1 p.m. The commission has been working since 2016 on updating the city’s zoning laws and is nearing the completion of its work. This meeting’s agenda includes review of needed amendments to the city’s comprehensive plan, review of the final proposed draft zoning ordinance, and various actions required by law to officially transmit the proposed draft zoning ordinance to council for commencement of that body’s final approval process. More: www.cityofelkinswv.com/zoning-update.

At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, the Municipal Properties Committee meets on an agenda that includes discussion of where a generator needed for the Tygart Hotel project might be located in the Seneca Mall parking lot, a memorandum of understanding with the Elkins Historic Landmarks Commission, lease agreements for Darden House office-space tenants, and next steps on the creation of updated “Welcome to Elkins” signs.

The ARPA Advisory Committee meets Tuesday at 12 p.m. Agenda items include requests for ARPA funds to pay for a study of a sewer-line expansion along North Randolph Avenue and the replacement of a service truck for the Wastewater Collection Department. The committee will also discuss procedures for ARPA funds returned as unspent by community organizations.

The Organizational Audit Committee meets Tuesday at 1 p.m. This ad hoc committee was formed to study and recommend changes to the city’s organizational structure. At this, its first, meeting, the committee will discuss procedures and scope of work.

The Rules & Ordinances Committee meets Wednesday at 9 a.m. On the agenda are open containers, outdoor dining, and deer population control.

The Board of Zoning Appeals meets Wednesday at 4 p.m. The board will review the current process for zoning appeals and discuss procedures for recording hearings.

The Treasurer’s Office will be closed on Thursday for a staff meeting from 12:00 to 12:30 p.m. First-due area (i.e., outside city limits) Fire & Rescue Service Fee payments are due June 1st. FY2023 business license applications have been mailed out and are due by June 30th. Any outstanding B&O taxes must be paid before a FY2023 business license will be issued.

All meetings are open to the public and, unless otherwise stated, held at Elkins City Call (401 Davis Avenue). Find agendas and other meeting information here: www.cityofelkinswv.com/council-and-committee-meetings.

Wastewater Operators Learn Nutrient Removal

If you’ve ever seen a stream choked with green algae, you know what happens when there is too much nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients in water. Agricultural runoff is one of the main causes of these “algae blooms,” but potentially problematic nutrients are also present in the wastewater effluent that is released after treatment as surface water.

To learn how to better address this issue, the Elkins Wastewater Treatment Plant recently hosted a training team from the W. Va. Environmental Training Center. The team provided WWTP operators with classroom instruction and hands-on practice in removing nutrients from treated wastewater.

As part of this training, operators learned how to test wastewater for alkalinity, ammonia, phosphorus, nitrite/nitrate, and pH. Operators also learned about oxygen reduction potential (ORP) and jar testing, a process that simulates WWTP processes at a small scale to test whether changes are needed to achieve water quality goals.

“This training was really important to my operators, because there is increasing concern in our watershed about the need for nutrient removal,” says Whitney Hymes, the chief wastewater operator for the Elkins Sanitary Board. “There are likely going to be state regulations coming soon requiring nitrogen and phosphorous removal, and so we wanted to start learning about it as soon as possible. We really appreciated the visit from ETC. They put on a great class for us.”

 

Hydrant Flushing Starts Monday

Starting Monday, Elkins Water Board employees will be opening fire hydrants to flush out city water lines. During this time, it will be normal to see unattended fire hydrants spraying water under pressure. Customers may experience temporary discoloration that should clear up within minutes or hours.

On a biannual basis, water board employees open fire hydrants to flush water lines of accumulated sediments that can cause discoloration in customers’ homes and other buildings. To flush the lines, water system workers systematically open fire hydrants and let the water flow at full force until water appears clear in a white paper cup.

This work will proceed by sections, starting at elevation on Reservoir Hill, above the Wees District, and working westward across the city. The city will use its social media channels, email alert list, and website to announce which sections of the city will be flushed each day. The information will also be supplied to the media.

After flushing is complete in each section of the city, the Elkins Fire Department will perform flow testing on each hydrant to verify that they are operating according to specifications. Although flow testing only requires hydrants to be open for a few minutes, it takes longer than flushing because each hydrant must be tested. Flushing does not require opening every hydrant, because many sit near each other on the same line.

Even though the overall goal of the flushing is to reduce sediment in water lines, customers in or near a section of the city that is being flushed may temporarily experience heightened discoloration in their water. This does not indicate that the water is unsafe to drink, cook with, or bathe in, but it would be advisable to avoid doing laundry until any remaining sediment has settled once again.

Customers experiencing cloudy or discolored water can try leaving taps open in a bathtub or sink for 20 minutes. It is important not to run hot water, however, as that would fill the building’s water heater with water that contains sediments.

To keep up with City of Elkins news and announcements about this and other topics, bookmark our website (www.cityofelkinswv.com), sign up for email and text alerts (www.cityofelkinswv.com/emergency-text-notifications), and follow us via Facebook (www.facebook.com/elkinscityhall) or Twitter (www.twitter.com/elkinscityhall).

5/17 DOH Paving in Elkins

Starting Monday, May 16th, the W. Va. Department of Highways will be paving Harrison Ave between Scottie’s and Crazy Harry’s in Crystal Springs.
 
To minimize disruptions, crews will work overnight 6 p.m.-6 a.m. until work is completed.
 
Watch for flaggers and observe safe speeds at all times.
 
(Harrison Avenue is one of several streets inside city limits that are owned and maintained by the state, not the city.)

5/17 Paving Plans

Paving work on Tuesday (5/17) to be as follows:

  • Central St. from Worth Ave. to Martin St.
  • Graceland Hills/Fields Lane (at dead end of Bruce Street).

See map of entire spring paving project below.

5/16 Paving Plans

Monday (5/16) we will be paving:

  • West Davis St at the radio station
  • 2 alleys between Earl St and Guy St.
  • Central St from Worth Ave to Martin St.

If we have time we will then pave at dead end of Bruce St and Fields Lane.

 

City Hall News: Week of May 16, 2022

Meeting this week are the Elkins Sanitary Board, the Elkins Historic Landmarks Commission, and the Elkins Parks & Recreation Commission. Council meets Thursday, and the Darden Garden cleanup is Saturday.

This month’s regular meetings of the Municipal Properties Committee and the Rules & Ordinances Committee have been postponed. Municipal Properties will meet May 24 at 9 a.m. and Rules & Ordinances will meet May 25 at 9 a.m.

The Sanitary Board meets Monday at 2 p.m. New business items include a discussion of the end-of-warranty walkthrough of last year’s sewer/stormwater separation project, a proposal for a study of extending wastewater lines up North Randolph Avenue, and review of invoices.

The Historic Landmarks Commission meets Tuesday at 4 p.m. in the Darden House (next door to city hall). There are no new business items; old business items include updates on stained glass repair, historic plaques, rack cards and other promotional items, and the commission’s website.

The Parks & Recreation Commission meets Wednesday at 5 p.m. at the Phil Gainer Community Center.

Council meets Thursday at 7 p.m. The agenda may be adjusted through Tuesday. Current items include acknowledgement of the end of the probationary periods for two EPD officers, consideration of applicants for appointment to vacancies on the Elkins Water Board and the Board of Trustees of the Elkins-Randolph County Public Library System, and discussion of an opportunity to apply for a grant to fund programs and activities addressing issues related to substance use disorder in this area.

Elkins Friends of Trees and the Elkins Tree Board are holding their annual Darden Gardens clean-up event on Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Darden House. Attendees should bring gloves and gardening tools if possible, but some will be available at the event. Refreshments will also be provided.

To avoid penalty, utility bills and in-city Fire & Rescue Service Fee payments are due to the Treasurer’s Department by Thursday.

All meetings are open to the public and, unless otherwise stated, held at Elkins City Call (401 Davis Avenue). Find agendas and other meeting information here: www.cityofelkinswv.com/council-and-committee-meetings.

City Demolishes Graham Street Property

When City of Elkins tore down the charred remains of a house at 201 Graham Street earlier this year, it was just the latest chapter in a still ongoing story that began in 2014, when the house was rendered uninhabitable by a fire. Why did it take so long to deal with this hazardous eyesore, and what’s next for this property, which the city still does not own?

The answers to these questions highlight how different the story of each abandoned property can be and demonstrate some of the obstacles that can slow the resolution of such situations. The story of 201 Graham Street also illustrates the potential value of a new law passed in 2022 by the state legislature. That law makes changes to the tax-sale process and establishes a $10 million state fund for demolishing dilapidated structures statewide.

Sold on the Courthouse Steps

By the time of the 2014 fire, the owners of 201 Graham Street had stopped paying property taxes, and the house was placed on the list for that year’s tax-lien auction. These are held each fall by the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office on the steps of the county courthouse.

At tax-lien auctions, bidding starts at the amount of taxes and fees outstanding on each property. Elkins City Attorney Geraldine Roberts explains that winning bidders can’t take possession of the properties for at least 18 months after the auction, during which time the original owners may recover their properties by repaying the taxes and fees, with interest.

“What the sheriff auctions off at these sales is not the property but the right to collect the overdue taxes and fees from the delinquent owner,” says Roberts. “For eighteen months from the date of the auction, the owner of record can redeem the property by repaying those taxes and fees to the winning bidder. If there is no redemption after eighteen months, the winning bidder can take title to the property by completing the redemption process with the state auditor. But until they do, they don’t own it, so not only do they have no incentive to make repairs, they can’t even legally set foot on the property.”

In the case of 201 Graham Street, however, the winning bidder in the 2014 auction declined to accept title to it after the 18-month redemption period ended, and the property was placed back on the list for the next tax-lien auction. It was then purchased by another party, who also eventually declined to take title. Finally, after no one bid on the property at a third auction, the tax lien was transferred to the West Virginia State Auditor.

Throughout this time, the owners of record could not be found, and as mentioned, the parties who purchased the tax lien had neither the legal right nor the incentive to spend a dime on a property that was not, and might never become, theirs.

The burnt building continued to deteriorate, and the grounds became an overgrown jungle of poison ivy.

The City Obtains the Lien—But Not Ownership

In September of 2021, City of Elkins purchased the lien on 201 Graham Street for $726.35 in delinquent taxes, penalties, and fees from the period 2018-2021. Again, the city still did not own the property.

Unlike private parties who are the winning bidders at tax-lien auctions, however, cities don’t necessarily need to wait for title to a property before taking action to address dangerous situations there.

“Under state code, municipalities have the specific power to provide for the eliminations of hazards to public health and safety and to abate a public nuisance,” says Roberts. “In other words, cities do have the right to enter private property and demolish a derelict structure if it has been found to be structurally unsound. This property had been determined to be uninhabitable by both EFD and city code enforcement, so there is no question that the city was well within the scope of its authority to remove the hazards.”

After the demolition was complete, Roberts placed an additional lien on the property for the $14,700 cost to taxpayers of taking the building down and disposing of the debris. She points out that there is almost no chance of recovering this money.

“We can place a lien on the property for the cost of this demolition, but these kinds of liens are only payable if the property is sold and they would be cancelled in the tax-lien auction process,” says Roberts. “We can also take the owner to court, but it doesn’t matter how much a judge awards the city if the owner can’t pay. And in this case, we can’t even find the owner.”

What’s next for 201 Graham Street? Although neighboring property owners might be interested in purchasing the lot, it won’t be the city’s to sell until it is finally transferred to the city’s ownership, either by the owners of record or through a court order. Until then, all officials can do is monitor the property—and wait.

New Law Streamlines Tax Sales, Creates Demolition Fund

Although a new law passed during the 2022 legislative session won’t affect 201 Graham Street, it has the potential to simplify the process of dealing with similar properties in the future.

The state has yet to publish rules implementing the new law, so the specifics are not yet known, but state officials have said that one big change will be a reduction in the time allowed for redemption of delinquent properties from 18 to 12 months. Cities will also have more options for obtaining these properties outside of the auction process.

In addition, the law sets aside $10 million from the state’s ARPA funds to cover the costs of demolishing such properties, costs that—as in the case of City of Elkins and 201 Graham Street—have not usually been recoverable.

The state says it will use this money to bid out large contracts for many demolitions throughout different regions, in hopes of obtaining volume discounts. No matter how large those discounts are, however, $10 million will only go so far. By some estimates, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to demolish all dilapidated and unsafe residential structures statewide, never mind commercial and industrial properties.

Roberts is hopeful, nonetheless.

“This is the first major change to a process that hasn’t been working at all in a long time,” she says. “It’s very encouraging to see the legislature supporting cities in tackling this issue, and I just hope the state will see fit to continue and perhaps expand funding for the demolition program in future years. It could really make a big difference for West Virginia.”

 

5/13 Paving Plans

On Friday (5.13), Southern West Virginia Paving will be working on:

  • South Davis Avenue near First Ward Apartments
  • South Henry Avenue between 13th and 15th
  • 13th Street from South Kerens to South Henry

If time allows:

  • Wilson Street from Glendale Avenue to Worth

Please watch for flaggers and look for temporary “no parking” signs. The below map shows all streets scheduled for paving work this spring, including the above.

New Council Committee to Study City’s Organizational Structure

A new temporary council committee will review the city’s organizational structure and recommend changes, as ordered by Mayor Jerry Marco last month.

The ad hoc Organizational Audit Committee will be led by Councilor Charlie Friddle, III and consist of Councilor Mike Hinchman, Councilor Dave Parker, Councilor Linda Vest, and the mayor.

In his memo directing the creation of this committee, the mayor said the idea came “as a result of discussions had and discoveries made by the previous ad hoc Special Hiring Committee.”

The mayor continued: “I believe special attention should be given to reviewing and, if needed, recommending changes in the way our organization is structured to support employees and provide the highest quality service to our constituents.”

The ad hoc Special Hiring Committee was formed last fall to recruit a new operations manager. Before finalizing the job description and advertising the opening, however, that committee, which was also led by Councilor Friddle, studied the structure of the city’s Operations Department and recommended certain changes to council, including shifting administrative responsibility for all water and sewer personnel and operations to the Elkins Water Board and Elkins Sanitary Board.

Now, the new ad hoc Organizational Audit Committee will perform a similar analysis of other city departments. The committee, which commences its work this month, will meet third Tuesdays at 1 p.m.

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