Zoning Update Moves to Council

The Elkins Planning Commission officially presented city council with its proposed update to city zoning laws in June, capping seven years of work by commissioners. State code stipulates several additional steps council must now follow before the new zoning ordinance can become law. These include a public comment period and two public hearings. The earliest date on which the ordinance could become law would be August 18.

The Planning Commission has held about 50 noticed, public meetings on this topic since 2015. The commission has also held three open houses to collect public input (January 2018, September 2018, and December 2021). As reflected in the commission’s meeting minutes, commissioners carefully considered, and often made changes in response to, every comment or suggestion received at these open houses, in addition to written and verbal comments from the public and from other elected officials.

Council will accept written comments on the proposed ordinance, which should be routed through the Office of the City Clerk, through July 15. On July 26, council will hold a daytime hearing at 1 p.m., followed by an evening hearing on July 28 at 7 p.m. The July 28 hearing will be followed by a regular council meeting, at which the ordinance is scheduled for first reading. As mentioned, the second and final reading is tentatively scheduled for August 18.

Zoning laws regulate how land may be used inside a jurisdiction. These laws divide jurisdictions into sections, or zones, and stipulate the kinds of businesses and housing that are allowed in each of these. Zoning laws also cover topics like where buildings may be situated on a lot and how many accessory buildings (e.g., sheds) are allowed. Other matters that zoning laws might cover include rules for urban livestock and agriculture, as well as requirements for buffer zones between commercial and residential properties.

Elkins zoning laws were first approved in the 1950s and have not been significantly updated since the 1970s. Starting in 2015, the Elkins Planning Commission has been preparing a comprehensive update to the city’s zoning laws. The objectives articulated by the Planning Commission for the update include attracting more personal and commercial investment into the city, encouraging small-scale businesses (including low-impact home businesses in some residential zones) and retail spaces, protecting neighborhood character, and preparing the city for new kinds of businesses that were not on the radar when the city’s current zoning laws were drafted.

Because the city’s zoning laws were so far out of date and, in part, no longer in compliance with state and federal laws and court rulings, the commission elected to start drafting its update from scratch. Some of the biggest changes in the new law would regulate the type, size, and placement of signs; encourage the creative repurposing of former schools and churches, which can be difficult under current city zoning rules; preserve vital retail space downtown by forbidding the conversion of storefronts into residences; and require “buffers” between commercial areas and residences, such as landscaping or fences.

Legally operated businesses and rental units would be “grandfathered” under the new law. This means that, even if the type of business or style of residence conflicted with those allowed in a particular zone under the new law, these “non-conforming uses” would be allowed to continue, even if the property is sold, unless abandoned for a year or longer. The proposed ordinance includes no design or historic-preservation requirements.

To ensure that the update incorporated proven, effective practices and complied with all applicable state and federal laws, the commission has throughout this process relied on the advice of planning and legal professionals from the Land Use and Sustainable Development Law Clinic, a program of the West Virginia University College of Law. Elkins is one of 20 West Virginia communities that clinic staffers are currently assisting with zoning ordinances at no cost.

Under the process stipulated by state law, planning commissions proposing new zoning ordinances must do by creating a document referred to as a Study and Report on Zoning. This document includes analysis of current conditions and an explanation of why changes to zoning laws are needed. The report then includes two appendices, one containing the proposed new ordinance and one containing the proposed new zoning map.

For more information and to download the Study and Report on Zoning (including the proposed zoning ordinance and map), visit: www.cityofelkinswv.com/zoning-update.

Kump Education Center Plans Summer Open House

The Kump Education Center will be hosting a special summertime Open House weekend, June 25-26, from 2-5 p.m. at the Gov. Kump House in Elkins. The two-day event is themed “Something Old, Something New” and will feature vintage family wedding gowns, memorabilia, and new interpretive displays.

The event will be the first time Edna Scott Kump’s 1907 and Peggy Kump Roberts’ 1936 wedding gowns will be on formal display along with other early 1900s wedding items. The home will be decorated with a wedding touch, and an Eleanor Roosevelt reenactor will be having tea in the newly built outdoor pavilion on the house grounds at 3 p.m.

The displays focus not only on family weddings but also on the historical significance of the site and the legacy of Gov. Kump, one of the most influential governors of the state.

“This will be our first of what we hope will be many Open Houses at the Kump House,” said Heather Biola, executive director of the Kump Education Center. “There is great significance to the overarching “Kump House at the Crossroads” theme of the minigrant: the house is at a major crossroads of several significant roads; Governor Kump served during a very transitional Depression to New Deal period of West Virginia history; and the brides were on their way to new stages of their lives.”

Admission to the event is free, but donations are highly encouraged. Limited parking will be available behind the Kump House, located on Randolph Ave., Elkins, and in the Kroger parking lot across the street.

The displays and event are partially funded by a West Virginia Humanities Council mini-grant. The WV Humanities Council is the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities and serves West Virginia through grants and direct programs in the humanities.

The Humanities Council budgets over $800,000 for grants and programs each year. A variety of grants are offered to nonprofit organizations that support educational programming. Major grants are designed for projects requesting over $1,500 and up to $20,000 and are awarded twice annually. Mini-grants, designed for projects requesting $1,500 or less, are awarded four times per year. The next Humanities Council mini-grant deadline is October 1, and the next major grant deadline is September 1.

For more information about the West Virginia Humanities Council grants program, contact Humanities Council grants administrator Erin Riebe at (304) 346-8500 or via email at riebe@wvhumanities.org. Grant guidelines and applications are available on the Humanities Council website, www.wvhumanities.org.

Elkins Council Limits Alley Parking

Parking in downtown alleys allowed only while loading/unloading

Parking is no longer allowed in downtown alleys under a new law passed by council. Outside the downtown area, alley parking remains allowed under certain conditions. The primary reason for the changes is to ensure access for emergency vehicles.

In downtown alleys, the law states, “no person shall park a vehicle within an alley… except when actually loading or unloading goods, wares, or merchandise, and then for a period not to exceed thirty minutes.” For the purposes of this law, the downtown is the area bounded by Railroad Avenue, Randolph Avenue, John Street, and Lohr Lane, the alley that runs parallel to and south of First Street.

In the rest of the city, under the new law, alley parking is allowed, as long as vehicles are positioned in such a way as to leave a 10-foot width of the roadway available for the free movement of emergency vehicles and other traffic.

Throughout the city, exceptions may exist. Motorists must in all cases obey posted “no parking” and “no standing” signs.

For more about parking in Elkins: www.cityofelkinswv.com/living/parking.

Elkins Seeking Design Services for Streetscape Plan

A city’s downtown can benefit from a consistent appearance, but how is consistency best achieved? Even property owners acting with the best intentions may find it difficult to coordinate their renovations, sidewalk replacements, façade improvements, and other projects to achieve a unified look across the downtown.

A project recently greenlighted by Elkins Common Council takes a first step toward solving this problem. The city is taking statements of interest and qualification from landscape architecture, design, and/or engineering firms that want to help the city create a “conceptual design” for the downtown streetscape. This conceptual design would include technical specifics for building materials and the design of building facades, sidewalks, outdoor lighting, streets, pedestrian safety features, and landscaping.

Statements of interest and qualification in preparing this document are due to the city’s operations manager by 2 p.m. on Tuesday, June 14.

The full request for proposals may be reviewed here: www.cityofelkinswv.com/working/bids-rfps.

Elkins Now Offering Free Bulk Pickups

Elkins residents can now dispose of furniture, appliances, and other bulk trash items monthly at no extra charge, thanks to the city’s new bulk pickup service. This service is only available to residential customers. Only one item will be accepted per month through this service.

The bulk pickup service, which relies on a new Sanitation Department grapple truck, is scheduled in connection with when household trash is collected in various parts of the city. During the first week of each month, bulk pickups will be available to households that put regular trash out on Mondays; during the second week, households that put trash out on Tuesdays and households that put trash out on Fridays; during the third week, households that put trash out on Wednesdays; and during the fourth week, households that put trash out on Thursdays.

This service starts in June and will proceed as follows during that month: where household trash is collected Mondays, bulk pickups will occur during the week of June 5; Tuesdays and Fridays, week of June 12; Wednesdays, week of June 19; Thursdays, week of June 26.  View the complete 2022 schedule here: www.cityofelkinswv.com/bulk-pickups.

On the week a given area is scheduled for bulk pickups, customers should place items curbside—even if their regular household trash is collected in an alley—no later than 6 a.m. Monday morning. The grapple truck will visit sometime that week, but not necessarily on the same day that household trash is being collected.

Acceptable materials for bulk pickups include furniture, appliances, and other large household items. We cannot accept yard waste, chemicals and hazardous materials, or building materials and demolition waste.

This service replaces the annual Spring Cleanup. Bulk pickups are a separate program from special pickups, which are scheduled at customer request, may be used to dispose of multiple items, and incur fees.

For more information about this program: www.cityofelkinswv.com/bulk-pickups.

Contact the Operations Department with any questions: 304-636-1414, ext. 1437 | spoe@cityofelkinswv.com.

Kump Education Center Awarded Humanities Council Grant

ELKINS – The West Virginia Humanities Council, the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, recently announced that the Kump Education Center (KEC) is one of 18 new mini-grants recipients in its latest round of awards. The WV Humanities Council serves West Virginia through grants and direct programs in the humanities.

The $1,500 grant for “Kump House at the Crossroads,” will support the creation of new interpretive displays for the Gov. H. Guy Kump House that will focus not only on the historical significance of the site, but also the legacy of Gov. Kump, one of the most influential governors of the state.

Grant funding will also assist in a special “unveiling” weekend event, “Something Old, Something New,” that will feature Kump family wedding gowns and memorabilia as well as the new displays. The summer Open Houses are scheduled for June 25-26, 2022.

“We are pleased to receive this grant,” said Heather Biola, executive director of the Kump Education Center. “We look forward to providing more ways to share the history of this home and Gov. Kump’s political contributions. Many do not know the innovative policies he put into effect that had a positive influence on public education, state roads and easing the financial burden on WV residents hit hard by the Depression.”

An additional aspect of the project will be to have more open hours for the Kump House and encourage more visitations by students and tourist groups. “With the creation of interpretive materials, we will be able to offer a better visitor experience,” Biola said. “We appreciate the funding assistance and look forward to opening our doors more this summer.”

The Humanities Council budgets over $800,000 for grants and programs each year. A variety of grants are offered to nonprofit organizations that support educational programming. Major grants are designed for projects requesting over $1,500 and up to $20,000 and are awarded twice annually. Mini grants, designed for projects requesting $1,500 or less, are awarded four times per year. The next Humanities Council minigrant deadline is June 1 and the next major grant deadline is September 1.

For more information about the West Virginia Humanities Council grants program contact Humanities Council grants administrator Erin Riebe at (304) 346-8500 or via email at riebe@wvhumanities.org. Grant guidelines and applications are available on the Humanities Council website, www.wvhumanities.org.

Contact: Heather Biola, (304) 637-7820

Council to Fill Second Ward Vacancy

City Councilor Charles Friddle, III (Second Ward) has resigned, and council meets Wednesday at 5 p.m. to plan for identifying and appointing a Second Ward resident to fill his seat until the 2023 election.

How Council Fills Vacant Seats

The city charter stipulates that, when a council seat becomes vacant,  it “shall be filled by appointment of a qualified person by council.” The charter further states that, in addition to being qualified to vote in Elkins, “councilors shall reside in the ward to be represented at the time of nomination and throughout the term of office.” Only voting-age persons who are qualified to vote in Second Ward are, therefore, eligible to apply for this position.

A protocol adopted by council in 2016 spells out the process of filling a vacancy in more detail. As required by this protocol, council will at Wednesday’s meeting be presented with a proposed resolution officially announcing the vacancy, establishing an application period and deadline, and directing how applications may be submitted.

A draft resolution prepared for this meeting directs interested candidates to submit resumes in person/by mail to the Elkins City Clerk, 401 Davis Avenue, or electronically to jsutton@cityofelkinswv.com, no later than June 17. Qualified applications will be reviewed by the mayor and council, and interviews will be scheduled.

Interviews are performed by council and the mayor and consist of a standardized set of questions. Answers are scored by all elected officials present, and an average score is calculated.

The interview step is followed by a meeting at which council deliberates toward its top candidate. Once this candidate’s continued interest has been verified, he or she will be scheduled for appointment at the next council meeting.

Persons interested in applying are encouraged to attend council meetings, on first and third Thursdays, and to learn as much as possible about the structure of the Elkins government, which is unusual.

What Council Members Do

Elkins is chartered as a weak-mayor/strong-council system. Under this arrangement, Elkins mayors have almost no authority. Councilors have no individual authority, but, acting as a 10-person body, the council exercises virtually all executive and corporate authority over the City of Elkins.

Through majority votes by a quorum of its members, council passes laws, adopts rules, and sets policy and strategic goals. Council is responsible for adopting the annual budget and monitoring the fiscal condition of the city; councilors can be held individually liable if budgets are overspent.

Five administrative officers report to council (the city clerk, the city treasurer, the fire chief, the operations manager, and the police chief). These officers are responsible for day-to-day operating and administrative decisions for their departments.

Elkins councilors are paid $7,200 a year and can enroll in the West Virginia Public Employees Retirement System. Alternatively, they may forego salary and participation in the retirement system and instead join the city’s PEIA health-insurance plan. No other benefits are available to council members.

Read more about what city councilors do: www.cityofelkinswv.com/government/city-clerk/elections/what-city-councilors-do.

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).

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.”

 

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