By Stephen Peck
A house at 18thand Magnolia streets in Buena Vista has been boarded up and untouched for three years. City officials say a new building board is the first step in taking action on it and other abandoned, burnt out or dilapidated buildings.
The Buena Vista City Council voted unanimously Thursday to create a new local board of building code appeals.
Buena Vista has not had its own building code board for more than a year. Members of the earlier board all left eventually, and the city could not find people willing to replace them.
But without a board in place, Director of Economic Development Brian Brown said, nothing could be done about unused, unsightly buildings.
“We wanted to make sure we did everything correctly, legally, and have given the public the chance to appeal and go through all their avenues legally,” he said. According to the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, building boards rule on disagreements between building inspectors and owners accused of violating the state building code.
“It’s kind of like a court,” said Fred Fix, city building inspector. “They bring in their people to look at the issue and then weigh both sides of the evidence.”
After the board is activated Feb. 15, Buena Vista can take action on dangerous, abandoned or unsightly structures. If Fix decides a structure is a threat to life, health, property or the safety of the public, he will send a letter to the owner explaining the problem.
If the owner does not respond within 90 days and the building remains boarded up with no utilities for six months, it can be demolished.
But if the owner objects to Fix’s ruling the case will be sent to the building code board of appeals.
Five people, with backgrounds in construction, engineering and law, will serve on the board and rule on contested cases.
Benefiting Buena Vista
Fix and Brown said demolishing derelict buildings will benefit Buena Vista and its residents.
“It’s for the betterment of the community to draw businesses and more people to build here,” Fix said. “If you’re driving around and you see 10 beat-up structures, would you want to move here? I wouldn’t. It doesn’t reflect well on the community.”
Unsightly structures can drive down property values for surrounding homes, Brown said.
“If one house goes into blighted conditions, it tends to eventually grow to other houses around it,” he said. “Then you get a loss in the value of property as a result of this blight.”
Abandoned houses are also safety hazards, Fix said, because they are falling apart and provide shelter for unwanted animals like rats and opossums.
“Anything that is left unoccupied for a long time, something will eventually occupy it,” Fix said.
Although the board should be approved this week, that doesn’t mean buildings will be demolished right away.
“The other piece to the puzzle is funding for this program,” Brown said.
Brown said a typical demolition costs $4,000. That price goes up to $14,000 for demolition of a building with asbestos.
No money is allotted for these projects, but Brown expects to receive funding from the budget that will begin in July. He said he hopes to take action on a few burnt-out homes as soon as money is available.
For now, Fix said, the creation of the building board and the identification of homes to be torn down are examples of the city “getting all our ducks in a row.”
He said tearing down or renovating all the derelict properties in town will be an ongoing process. But, he said, creating the board is a key first step.
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Fix said. “If you don’t, things get worse, and then what do you do?”