City to craft drug house law

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BUCKHANNON — The City of Buckhannon on Thursday pledged to proceed with caution and contact all affected parties before passing a “drug house” ordinance.

The proposed ordinance, if ultimately adopted, would enable city officials to label certain residential properties where repeated drug-related or other criminal activities occur as “drug houses” and then order the owner to take action to abate the problem, possibly by evicting the tenants, according to mayor David McCauley.

Under a drug house ordinance, the landlords are responsible for abating any illicit activity on the property.

The city first discussed the ordinance at its June 7 meeting after Sgt. Tom Posey was injured during a drug-related investigation at a Cleveland Avenue residence earlier this spring.

At Thursday’s meeting, city attorney Tom O’Neill updated council on his research regarding “drug house” ordinances across the state, saying there are two main models — one that’s been adopted by Clarksburg and a second passed by Martinsburg. Parkersburg and Huntington have since embraced what O’Neill described as the simpler Martinsburg ordinance.

“The Clarksburg ordinance establishes a full-blown rental housing registration system with inspections and fees and permits and a lot of different things,” O’Neill explained. “The Martinsburg ordinance — and therefore, the Parkersburg and Huntington ordinance — just creates kind of a self-executing standard for what constitutes a disorderly or gang house … which is that [if] the property is used for two or more offenses involving illegal drugs or delivery or trafficking of illegal drugs within any 12-month period” or if a felony offense is committed there, the city is empowered to require abatement of the area.

The abatement could mean the landlord would be forced to possibly remove problem tenants.

O’Neill noted that in both the Clarksburg and Martinsburg approaches, abatement applies to owner-occupied property, too.

“The abatement is not just simply limited to tenants but it’s [applicable to] owner-occupied property as well,” he said.

O’Neill asked council for guidance on which example it preferred.

McCauley said the Clarksburg ordinance seemed more bureaucratic.

City recorder Colin Reger expressed concern about infringement on landlords’ property rights.

“I guess what I’m asking is if someone commits a drug felony in a house that they own, is the city claiming that it has the right to remove the owner from his own property?” Reger asked.

O’Neill said no; however, the city could require the owner to abate the property by deeming it a “nuisance property.” Then, municipal officials could fine the owner, require that visible improvement take place over a set time period or even ask the owner to undergo drug treatment or rehabilitation. 

“What would concern me, and I hope would concern other people,” Reger continued, “would be someone making a mistake in their house and then the city abating them out of their own private property.”

“That would get into constitutional issues,” O’Neill replied.

McCauley asked O’Neill if he was ready to make a recommendation to the council Thursday as to which method it should adopt.

O’Neill said he believed in keeping it simple.

“I believe in the ‘simpler is better’ model,” the city attorney said. “I would probably lean towards the Martinsburg model, personally, but it’s always something that the council can revisit as we dip our toe into this. The main difference with the Clarksburg model is that every rental property has to undergo a registration and inspection and reporting process.”

City councilman CJ Rylands suggested consulting the local landlords’ association, and O’Neill said that although he had yet to receive comments from that group, he was “confident that they will express an opinion.”

McCauley suggested council proceed cautiously.

“Why don’t we start in the direction of a draft emulating the Martinsburg model?” the mayor said. “We’ll go slow with this. We’ll look at it, we’ll study it, we’ll wait a meeting or two before we consider a first reading.”

“It’s just another tool in the toolbox to dissuade [illegal drug activity],” he added. “We’ve had two situations where the same guy nearly died twice in the same place … he was shot by another drug hoodlum and then the second time, as he was Narcan’ed out of his drug-induced stupor, injured a police officer within a month. I mean, these were two substantial incidents.”

Narcan is a brand name for Naloxone, an opioid antagonist that has the power to reverse opioid overdoses.

Councilman Robbie Skinner said the ordinance, if passed, could potentially preserve property values in certain neighborhoods where they might be at risk.

“I’m familiar with a particular house in a particular neighborhood in the last five years, where there have been three arrests made at the same piece of property, and the same people remain living in the house,” Skinner said. “I’ve spoken actually with the landlord, and the landlord is of the opinion as long as he receives his money on time, it’s OK, and look at what that’s doing to the neighborhood when others are around attempting to elevate their property and perhaps resell it, that kills the vitality of a neighborhood.”

Councilman David Thomas said it’s important the city take a proactive stance relative to the drug epidemic.

“We have an epidemic in our society today, and unless we’re aggressive in encountering it, we’re going to have a lot of issues,” he said.

Rylands reiterated his suggestion that the council work in conjunction with the landlords’ association. City officials plan to garner input from that group prior to presenting a draft ordinance at the July 19 or Aug. 2 council meeting.

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