Town sets public hearing for adoption of Virginia’s property maintenance code

FRONT ROYAL – The Town Council at its regular Monday meeting decided it would like to adopt state’s property maintenance code after years of discussion on the matter.

The code – which will be subject to an Oct. 10 public hearing – allows a complaint-based or proactive enforcement of the state’s property maintenance code. The Town Council agreed to advertise the proposed code by a 4-2 vote with Vice Mayor Eugene Tewalt and Councilman William Sealock dissenting.

The vote was preceded by nine speakers during the meeting’s public presentation portion who urged the council to adopt the state code.

Melanie Salins said as a libertarian she prefers minimum government interference. As a landlord, however, she said the town’s lack of a property maintenance code discourages her from buying more properties.

She said Front Royal is a “sanctuary city for slumlords” and enforcing the state code is the “bare minimum” the town could do in solving the issue.

Amber Morris said the council’s vote should reflect the desire of citizens and not having a property maintenance code decreases property values, increases homeowner’s insurance and makes the town look bad.

Bryan Malone said it would be “pure logic” for the town to adopt the state code and said it would benefit everyone.

Sealock and Tewalt said they voted against the code because they preferred adopting a section of the state code that would not expand the town’s enforcement powers beyond the already established public nuisance code.

Tewalt said he voted against adopting the entire code because the town is not ready and does not have money to enforce it.

He added that he does not know where that money will come from, seeing that the council voted against a 1-cent tax increase to cover debt for the new police department’s construction.

“I’m not a person to jump in the middle of the pond and can’t swim, and that’s what we’re going to do…we’re jumping into something that we have nobody to enforce,” Tewalt said.

Sealock said he wanted to adopt a portion of the code because one must learn to crawl before learning to walk. He added that enforcement would require funding and other expenses may include legal costs when violations are challenged by building owners.

He noted these potential expenses come as an “extremely tight budget” looms.

Councilman Jacob Meza responded that children learn to walk in nine months and council has discussed property maintenance for two years.

“If you find yourself in the middle of a pond – well if it takes you two years to get the middle of a pond – you might be directionally challenged,” he said.

Meza added that adopting the state’s code is a “baby step” that will hopefully lead the town to the eventual approval of a rental inspections department.

Councilman Christopher Morrison said the vote “is not simply about property maintenance” and that it is about “identity” and “ownership.”

“Our children need to be taught ownership, what it means to take care of something and to have respect,” Morrison said.

In response to potential expenses stemming from the decision, Morrison noted that “if you increase the value of homes and other structures…tax revenue will increase as well without having to raise taxes.”

Councilman John Connolly said he “was swayed by the turnout” to vote in favor of adopting the code, adding that he does not agree with Morrison’s sentiments.

“The arguments that make most sense to me are those that protect the common good. I’m not a huge believer in the law as this grand teacher; law is enforcement,” he said.

Councilman Gary Gillispie said he does not want to mislead citizens and the council’s decision will not be a quick fix. He added that the town cannot enforce today’s standards in a building constructed 80 years ago but the code “will go some way into helping.”

All councilmen were present at the meeting.

Correction: A previous version of this article should have stated that Town Council agreed to advertise the code for a public hearing.