Proposed property maintenance code moves forward

FRONT ROYAL – The town has taken another step toward adopting the state’s property maintenance regulations into its code. 

Town Council at its regular Monday meeting approved a first reading of the proposed adoption by a 5-1 vote, with Councilman Eugene Tewalt the lone dissenter.

Referencing a July Virginia Assembly charter amendment, Tewalt said he is in favor of a dilapidated building ordinance but not of a property maintenance code. That amendment states that towns can “remedy, remove, repair and secure any blighted or derelict buildings or structure.”

He noted that the town could enforce that charter without changing its code and expressed concern over expenses associated with the property maintenance code, although the council’s agenda sheet states there is “no cost.”

“If anybody thinks there’s no cost to this, we’ve got a problem,” he said.

Councilman William Sealock agreed and said “government has a cost in everything that we do,” and if no money is put toward the program, there will be no enforcement. Town Manager Joe Waltz noted that about $75,000 had been put aside for property maintenance enforcement.

The proposed code states that the town “reserves its authority to establish” a building department and board of building code appeals. Until then, a 1983 agreement with Warren County established the county “as the building department for the town.”

Town Attorney Doug Napier said that would remain the case until the county is overloaded, at which point the town would either have to fund a full or part-time position or join forces with another locality in funding a building official.

Officials previously have noted that other expenses will include legal fees incurred when landlords challenge any decisions made.

During a public hearing, Letasha Thompson, a council candidate in the upcoming election, said one of the basic roles of government is promoting general welfare “and tonight is the opportunity to do that.” She said if there are no consequences for landlords, “they will continue to do as they have done.”

“The slumlords are taking advantage of our most vulnerable citizens, and we can’t allow it to continue,” she said.

David Silek, a local attorney, urged the council to instead use the public nuisance law to eliminate downtrodden properties.

“Ms. Jennifer Barry [clerk of council] doesn’t want me to use the president’s term of what he would call these places, so I’ll call them crap holes. They have got to go,” he said. “You have hotels that are drug dens that just bring in people from outside of our community…and they’re constantly involved in the opiate and heroin trade.”

He noted that the nuisance law, which allows action on “houses of ill fame,” has been in effect in Virginia for 400 years, but the town has not enacted it.

“The house of ill fame. We know where they are, but you let them exist and continue to exist, and do not a thing about it. Why? Because one must assume you like them,” Silek said.

Councilman John Connolly said the town pursued enforcing the nuisance law but found that such charges would likely not hold up in court.

According to previous reports, Napier said the property maintenance code would not be much different than the nuisance law, except that cases will be easier to prove in court because violations will be codified and not up to a judge’s discretion.

The final step in the process of adopting the regulations will be a future work session, followed by a second reading and final vote.