Undaunted by a rare earthquake in Virginia, the Berryville Planning Commission held their scheduled meeting Tuesday evening focusing on spot blight abatement in the town. However, the effort to rid the town of persistent eyesores ran headlong into the residents of Josephine Street. More than twenty residents attended the meeting and a half-dozen speakers stood before the commission to voice their opposition to the proposed demolition of the property at 23 Josephine Street.
Spurred by complaints the Town Manager, Keith Dalton had previously identified several properties throughout the town as being blighted. The town has ordinances in place that dictate a process for spot blight abatement and properties identified as blighted have all fallen into various positions in the town’s abatement plans. While other properties throughout the town are in preliminary stages for blight abatement, the property at 23 Josephine Street is the first property that is being considered for demolition.
Before the Public Hearing began Planning Commission Chair, Doug Schaffer recused himself from the proceedings because he had bid against the current owner of 23 Josephine Street when it was sold at auction six years ago. Vice-chair Robert Ferrebee took charge of the proceedings in Mr Schaffer’s absence.
Keith Dalton addressed the commission before the public hearing and summarized the process and where the Josephine Street property stands in that process. “Once a property is identified as being blighted , a letter is sent out to the property owner and the owner is given 30 days to come up with an abatement plan for the property. If that abatement plan does not meet what the Town Manager believes will addresses the spot blight, the town manager will then create an abatement plan and submit it to the planning commission at which point the planning commission will hold a public hearing on the matter. Mr Woodruff did not respond to that letter.”
At the previous meeting, the town manger told the commission that his plan for blight abatement at the property would be to demolish the structures.
At the meeting Tuesday night , the residents of Josephine Street took the opportunity to speak and voiced their unanimous protest to the plan. The core issues that arose from the comments were accusations of injustice and a bias as to the selection of properties identified for spot blight abatement. Mr Woodruff’s brother, Minister Charles Woodruff complained that there were a number of properties on Josephine Street that are in far worse shape than his brother’s property. “Why was this property singled out?” Other speakers referenced properties throughout the town that they considered to be in worse condition that had not been identified as blighted. Kenneth Liggins addressed the commission representing the Josephine Street Improvement Association and presented a letter to the commission signed by the residents of Josephine street that said the residents do not want anything done to the property until such time as the town takes action to repair the sidewalks on Josephine Street. Mr Liggins said, “That is blighted property also and the community at large uses the sidewalk more so than they do Mr Woodruff’s property.”
Residents also said the actions were an injustice that would force the owner to spend money on the property at a time when the entire community was suffering as a result of a depressed economy. The owner of the property, Mr Woodruff, told the council of the extensive efforts he has made to keep the property in order and said, “I’m trying to get it fixed up but with the economy at this time the banks are not letting anyone borrow any money. If I could get it fixed up I would fix it up.”
James Payne who resides at 213 Josephine Street took issue with the town’s actions saying:
The only time Town Council is coming on Josephine Street is to find something wrong. Economic times that we are facing right now, and we are talking about knocking down someone’s house. They are paying a mortgage and then we will turn around and tell them they are going to have to pay for taking away the debris and all that. It will force this man to push his finances and his home into foreclosure in order to pay for this action. Those things are an injustice no matter how you look at them, and no matter how you want to work around it, it is an injustice to this man who bought a house, who bought property that he could lose either by foreclosure or by not being able to pay the town for demolition.
Roland Clarke also addressed the council on behalf of the community and suggested that the application of the blight abatement policy was not being used fairly saying, “I had to look at a blighted barn that sat there for years. Nobody mentioned anything about tearing it down.” He appealed for the commission to take a step back in the process and give the property owner more time. “I would ask that you all seriously consider what has been said here tonight. I don’t know what the outcome will be but I know they (referring to the residents of Josephine Street) are not going to just stop at one meeting to try to get their point across.”
After several more comments the hearing and the public comment portion of the meeting were closed and the commission began to discuss the property with the owner. Comments continued to pour in from the audience and Vice Chair Robert Ferrebee extended a great deal of latitude allowing the comments to continue throughout the session.
The commission members asked Mr Woodruff what his plans are for the property and he expressed a desire to renovate. Questions were raised as to whether the property could be renovated. Commission member Linda Canterbury asked whether an engineer had been consulted. Mr Woodruff said he had not.
Battling back a stream of comments and interruptions from the audience, Vice-Chair Robert Ferrebee began to forge a plan. “”I am not looking for us to act tonight to come in and tear your property down. Can you give us a plan that will show you what you are going to do with a reasonable timeline within 90 days?”
Mr Woodruff seemed agreeable to the proposed solution.
Linda Canterbury said, “I would like to see a timeline for work sessions with someone from the planning office to help discuss what needs to be done to the property so that you can put together a plan. I don’t want to see this go to the Town Council yet. I think the community has enough interest in trying to come up with a solution.”
The commission agreed and a motion was put forth to allow Mr Woodruff to work with the community and the Town Planner to develop an abatement plan within 90 days to be presented at the November 22 meeting.
The motion was passed unanimously. The Planning Commission will table the issue and forward their recommendation to the Town Council after their November meeting.