City town hall addresses drug house ordinance

Community member Christine Bennett

BUCKHANNON — Buckhannon City Council was expected to hear the first reading of a drug house ordinance at Thursday night’s city council meeting.

That meeting happened after The Record Delta’s press deadline Thursday.

However, during a town hall on the proposed ordinance Tuesday, city officials and local landlords discussed the issue for two hours.

City attorney Tom O’Neill presented a draft of ordinance 428, an ordinance providing for the abatement of drug and gang houses, houses of prostitution and other disorderly houses within the municipal boundaries of the city of Buckhannon.

“This ordinance labels property, not people,” O’Neill said. “What we have in the ordinance is a very measured and reasonable response to a growing problem in the county.

O’Neill said the ordinance sets the standard to identify nuisance properties.

“If there is a particular structure that is used to regularly traffic in illegal drugs then we are going to identify and label that property as a public nuisance,” he said. “It imposes reasonable requirements to abate that public nuisance. Number three, it imposes or requires some reasonable accountability.”

O’Neill also said there has to be an enforcement mechanism if someone doesn’t participate in the intents and objectives of the ordinances.

Article 1 of the proposed ordinance states that any premises used for prostitution, illegal possession, storage or delivery of or trafficking in controlled substances; or other illegal drug activity is hereby declared to be a public nuisance.

It goes on to state that “provided, that no public nuisance or violation of this ordinance shall be deemed to exist unless the premises is used for two or more such offenses or incidents within a 24 consecutive month period; the activity committed on the premises is punishable by imprisonment for one year or ….manufacture of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, or delivery of a controlled substance.

“Those are three felonies,” O’Neill said. “If any of those three felonies occur in a particular piece of property than that property is libel.”

O’Neill later clarified that the ordinance could be changed to say that all those three things have to happen instead of one or the other, but that would be at the direction of council.

“Once there is reason to believe that a property is a pubic nuisance, the ordinance authorizes certain individuals including the chief of police, city engineer, zoning enforcement officer or representative of the city authorized by the city’s housing enforcement board to petition the municipal court for a finding that the property is a public nuisance,” O’Neill said.

There would than a hearing and the municipal judge would be the one to determine if the property is a public nuisance or not.

Once that finding occurs, an order of abatement would be issued.

“If you are a landlord and you are renting to a drug dealer, you may be required to evict that drug dealer,” O’Neill said. “Does anyone have a problem with that?”

None of the landlords present spoke up.

Landlords may also be required to do background checks – which many are already doing, according to O’Neill.

“This ordinance is not directed to the good landlords of this community,” the city attorney said. “This ordinance is not about responsible landlords.”

Buckhannon police chief Matt Gregory said that he has seen drug issues steadily increase in his 22-year police career.

“Drugs typically associated with large cities make their way into Buckhannon and the negative results that stem from that,” he said.

Gregory said the ordinance addresses a more positive quality of life.

“I’ve seen various neighborhoods throughout the City of Buckhannon become affected by this scourge,” he said.

Gregory said he spoke with the Martinsburg police chief who brought the drug house ordinance concept to the city when became a police chief.

“Martinsburg has engaged it a number of times,” he said. “The chief believes it has made a very positive different for the community. It has reduced crime.”

Mayor David McCauley said there was a 91 percent reduction in instances in those same houses.

Gregory said that even though Martinsburg has engaged the ordinance a number of times, there have been no fines.

“That is because on that initial notification, the problem has been taken care of,” he said. “That is the goal of the ordinance to work together to solve the problem.”

Some of the landlords and community members present questioned verbiage in the ordinance which O’Neill clarified or agreed needed to be changed.

Several landlords and community members raised different scenarios and what the city would do if that scenario would happen.

Christine Bennett asked the council to examine the issue further before proceeding with the ordinance.

Instead, she suggested a landlord partnership with the police department to be proactive.

Matt Kerner, executive director of Opportunity House, Inc. operates several houses for people in recovery.

He asked that an exception for recovery residencies, treatment centers or detox facilities be put in the ordinance.

“I have five houses and I intentionally bring addicts  there,” he said.

But O’Neill said, “It’s only a problem if they are selling drugs out of there.”

Kerner commended the city on taking out the verbiage about overdoses and calls for 911 in the draft.

“I’m grateful for that,” he said. “I think that has the potential to save lives.”

More In Local News