Code enforcement of dilapidated structures under fire - WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

Code enforcement of dilapidated structures under fire

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Photo courtesy of Hall Brothers Properties. This structure at 1300 N. 13th St., Clarksburg, owned by Gregory Hall, is among the properties he said has been impacted by the city’s demolition program. Photo courtesy of Hall Brothers Properties. This structure at 1300 N. 13th St., Clarksburg, owned by Gregory Hall, is among the properties he said has been impacted by the city’s demolition program.
Photo courtesy of Hall Brothers Properties. A property at 407 S. Chestnut St., Clarksburg, is one Jefferson County businessman Gregory Hall contends has been unfairly targeted by the city’s demolition program. Photo courtesy of Hall Brothers Properties. A property at 407 S. Chestnut St., Clarksburg, is one Jefferson County businessman Gregory Hall contends has been unfairly targeted by the city’s demolition program.

A federal judge has been asked to decide if the City of Clarksburg’s code enforcement program went too far in ridding the community of dilapidated and unsafe structures.

Eastern Panhandle businessman Gregory G. Hall claims city officials targeted his properties to line their own pockets.

Named as defendants in his suit were: Clarksburg City Manager Martin Howe; Mayor Margaret Bailey; James C. Hunt, a former councilman and area manager for the West Virginia Housing Development Fund; Ralph R. Pedersen, licensed architect and chairman of Clarksburg’s Building Code Appeal Board; Adam Barberio, building code official; H. Keith Kesling and Jonathan R. Davis, building code inspectors.

Hall, of Jefferson County, has interests in five businesses — Elizabeth Realty, E.M.T. Properties, Hall Brothers Properties, Hallsey’s Realty and Old Home Properties — that he says were impacted by the city’s demo program.

His suit, filed May 30 in federal court, suggests city officials and employees “worked in concert” to deprive him of his property and that individuals “who were not properly licensed and/or certified as building code inspectors and officials, issued countless citations, notices of violation, condemnation orders and demolition orders” on his properties, driving his tenants out and causing him to lose those same properties to demolition or foreclosure.

Hall also complains that the city used state funds “to further their aggressive housing demolition program” and alleges that the defendants “benefited personally from their unlawful conduct by using the demolition funds for personal gain and acquiring demolished property to further personal interests in residential housing construction endeavors.”

His complaint is strikingly similar to a complaint filed in federal court in February by Thomas and Diana Jacquez, who say they were pushed into bankruptcy by the city’s enforcement actions against 13 of their properties. Their bankruptcy trustee, Thomas Fluharty, joined in the suit, which named the city as defendant.

Like Hall, the Jacquezes claimed they were targeted by city officials who were not properly licensed. And like Hall, they also claimed countless citations, notices of violations, condemnation orders and demolition orders were issued against their properties, as well as alleged “wrongful, unlawful and tortious code enforcement actions” against their interests, as did Hall.

The Jacquez suit accused Clarksburg officials of devising an “unlawful plan of concerted action and public policy, willful, artibtrary and capricious code enforcement activities ... all to the detriment and harm” of property owners as well as their low or moderate income tenants forced to relocate when buildings are declared inhabitable.

The Jacquezes also insisted the city adopted an urban renewal plan that didn’t comply with state code “and the definitions of ‘blighted area,’ ‘slum area,’ or ‘redevelopment project.’”

City officials were not aware of the Hall suit and could not comment.

In their response to the Jacquez complaint, however, city officials denied wrongdoing, pointing out there is an appeals process in place.

“In the situation where the city has issued a decision with respect to the property of an individual, the individual must follow a certain process if they wish to appeal (that) decision,” officials said in their response to the Jacquez suit, filed with the court.

That process provides property owners with the right to file an appeal within 20 days after the decision, notice or order is served. If the property owner is still dissatisfied, he or she can appeal to Circuit Court for a writ of certiorari.

City officials say the Jacquezes “never utilized the proper avenues to challenge the actions taken by the city.”

The Jacquezes also insisted that residents who signed a “nuisance petition” asking the city to get them out of their Virginia Avenue neighborhood were acting in concert with the city. On that petition, neighbors complained of frequent fights, gunshots and police visits, as well as loud music, obscenities, garbage issues and a pervasive stench of dog manure emanating from the backyard of the Jacquez properties after the couple acquired the buildings in May 2005.

Hall, meanwhile, contends the city’s demolition program is politically driven, citing as evidence a 2012 interview in which former councilman Martin Shaffer, months after he left office, told a reporter that the city was “abusing the city’s demolition program to target their enemies and help their friends,” and its code enforcement “is being used as a political arm of our administration.” At the time of the interview Shaffer was president of the Harrison County Landlords Association.

Hall contends it’s all part of a plan “to rid the City of Clarksburg of older, outdated, real properties which they perceived were unsightly or in disrepair and/or were owned, occupied and rented by low to moderate income persons and families, many of whom they perceived were, by lifestyle, a nuisance.”

Howe, meanwhile, declined to comment on the specifics of either suit, but did say on the city’s behalf that “there are property owners within every community that have a negative effect on surrounding property owners, and either directly or indirectly affect their neighbors which can be (unintentional) or by a lack of responsibility.”

“At the same time, there are many property owners who try very hard to (maintain) their properties and we continue to applaud those efforts. The city affords anyone the opportunity and a process to appeal any action taken specifically in regards to property maintenance issues. These types of lawsuits are another step in the process — we will have to address them on an individual basis.”

Both complaints seek unspecified damages and court costs. Hall also is seeking an order barring city officials from seeking funding to continue their participation in the West Virginia Housing Development Fund, restricting code enforcement actions against residential properties and prohibiting residential property demolitions.