City of Elkins explains why it took 8 years to demolish home
ELKINS, W.Va (WDTV) - The City of Elkins explains why it took 8 years to demolish the charred remains of a home on Graham Street.
When the home caught fire in 2014, officials said 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. The auctions are held each fall by the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office on the steps of the county courthouse.
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.”
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.
The home 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 officials said the grounds became an overgrown jungle of poison ivy.
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. The city still did not own the property.
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.”
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.
Officials said 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 have not usually been recoverable.
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