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W.Va. town’s proposed move-in fee draws fire

BELINGTON, W.Va. — Droves of residents expressed outrage Thursday over a proposed Belington City Council ordinance that would require individuals to fill out an application and pay a $25 fee before moving to the small town.

About 60 people turned out to Thursday’s Council meeting, many objecting to the proposed ordinance drafted by Councilman Max Grove. After the meeting, Grove said he created the document to deal with “people (who) do not contribute to the town at all. They come and sit on the couch and wait to collect a check.”

The small council chambers at Belington City Hall were filled beyond maximum capacity, with a line of people waiting outside the chamber doors, and others sitting on the floor. Midway through the meeting, officials moved the proceedings upstairs to a larger room to accommodate the overflow crowd.

The draft ordinance was not on the agenda, but media reports shared on social media in recent days alarmed several residents. Mayor Bobby King called the meeting to order and began calling names of an extensive list of individuals who wanted to speak about Grove’s draft of an “Occupancy & Entrance Permits” ordinance.

The ordinance was not made available to those attending the meeting and Grove stated several times that it should never have been released to the public.

The Inter-Mountain obtained a copy of the draft from Belington City Hall before the meeting.

The draft states that, if the ordinance is enacted, “all new occupancies, within the city limits of Belington” will be required to obtain an “occupancy permit” from the city at a cost of $25 to offset the expense of enforcement by a city building inspector, ordinance enforcer and/or police officer.

According to the draft, refusal or inability by any “owner, tenant, lessee or squatter” to comply with the ordinance would result in the denial of a Belington Occupancy Permit. When asked what would happen if an application was denied, Grove said, “We don’t know what would happen if it was denied because this is still a draft.”

The draft states “any person, owner, or tenant occupying any property prior to the approval of this Belington Occupancy Permit must come into compliance before July 1, 2015.”

Any person not in compliance would face a fine of $100 and an additional $5 fine for each day of non-compliance. It states that landlords, or anyone subletting or renting properties, would be notified within 15 days of a violation. If not resolved, the occupancy permit would be revoked. If the violation would continue to a 30th day, the individual would be cited for contempt of Council and fined $250 and an additional $5 per day fine retroactive to the date of the infraction notice.

According to the draft, anyone currently living in Belington would be “grandfathered for one year from the effective date of the ordinance,” but notes “all property owners, tenants, lessees, regardless of category or district, are required to secure an Occupancy Permit from the city of Belington.”

The draft also lists several requirements for obtaining an occupancy permit. Residents would have to show proof of water and sewer service from the city and that electrical service was provided by a utility company.

“Service by a gasoline, natural gas or propane engine generator is absolutely forbidden,” the draft states. “The only exception would be an emergency declaration by the President of the United States, the governor of West Virginia, the County Commission of Barbour County, and/or the mayor and council of the city of Belington which would be time limited as the proclamation.”

Residents would also be required to provide proof of garbage service; to demonstrate the ability to mow and trim grass and weeds, and provide structure maintenance and debris control; and to provide a Barbour County-assigned E911 address.

The draft also states that anyone who fails to stay current with utility bills to the point where utilities are shut off – other than in a state of emergency – could have their permit revoked.

Resident Barb Barkley was the first to speak against the ordinance.

“It is completely unrealistic,” she said. “It is impossible to manage… unless someone is creating a job for themselves. It is none of the city’s business if I pay my utility bills.”

She also said it was not the city’s business if she chose to own a generator.

“We have enough trouble getting and keeping local businesses,” she said. “Now we are considering this ordinance.”

Councilwoman Maureen Lasky-Setchell interrupted the public comment period to “try to calm the crowd.”

“A proposal was drafted to head off a problem that has came to light,” she said. “This is a rough draft. There are things in this that we do not agree with. We are nowhere near a final version of this. This is just a rough draft.

“We as a council are trying to maintain a standard for the people that have lived here for years. Anyone who currently lives in the city will not pay a $25 occupancy fee. No one is required to prove that they have paid their utilities.”

Lasky-Setchell’s remarks failed to calm the crowd and many still wished to speak. She said she was glad to see so many people participating in the process.

Grove said, “This is a draft ordinance. It should not have been released. It is a conspiracy.”

An individual in the crowd yelled out, “We need to move this so everyone can hear. Everyone has the right to hear this.”

Someone else shouted, “We are definitely in violation of the fire code.”

King then moved the meeting upstairs in City Hall to a larger room with more seating.

Once the meeting resumed, resident Linda Watson said, “What are you going to do to my property value when I try to sell my house and the buyer can’t get an occupancy permit?”

Several in the crowd asked how the draft originated, and Grove responded, “I wrote it.”

“We want people to move into the community,” resident Suzanna Skidmore, a former Belington City Council member, said. “This will keep them out.”

Another resident yelled out, “You are going to make this a ghost town.”

Resident Heather Johnson said on her street several power outages have prompted the use of a generator. Those situations were not declared a state of emergency, she said.

“We are the laughing stock of the state,” Johnson said. “Thank you, Max, for bringing this to my town.”

Councilman Marshall Reed said, “There are going to be a lot of empty houses. If this passes, I’m moving out of town.”

Lasky-Setchell told the crowd the community showed up in force and voiced their concerns.

“We represent you,” she said. “If you want parts of this gone, we can take it out. This Council represents you.”

Resident Derek Hart said he had an issue with people being required to apply to live in Belington.

“No one wants to apply to live in this town,” he said. “An application implies that someone can be denied. Is this an application and can someone be denied to live in this town?”

Grove responded, “Until the ordinance is passed, we can’t answer your question. This is still a draft.”

Dave Smith, a member of the Belington Zoning Board, said the board was asked to look at the ordinance, but not vote on it.

King attempted to move the meeting forward.

“We have about beat this to death,” he said. “Let’s move on with the meeting.”

The residents in attendance were not ready to move on, however. Resident Lori Wetzel spoke up.

“Anyone in this crowd that voted for Max Grove, I hope they come out and vote against him,” Wetzel said.

The crowd applauded her remarks and Grove began clapping, also.

“I already announced that I am not running (for re-election),” he said.

Several people in the crowd again asked for copies of the proposed ordinance. Grove again declined, saying it was just a draft.

Council moved on with the meeting, with no action taken on the draft ordinance.

Following the meeting, Grove spoke with members of the press. When questioned why the proposed ordinance was not available to the public when all council members had a copy and it has been presented during a public zoning board meeting, Grove said the document was just a draft and that he had already made changes.

When Grove was asked if he believes the public had the right to interact with Council about the proposed ordinance, he said, “That was not public interaction. That was a mob.”

He said many in the crowd didn’t understand the situation, and said what was reported and then circulated on social media prior to the meeting was false. He said the fee would only apply to new residents.

“You get the slumlords that bring people in and they only pay the first month rent and security deposit,” he said. “This will not prevent people from coming. Anyone that has pride and wants to move here, this is not going to stop them.”

Grove told The Inter-Mountain that if no one had showed up at the meeting he would have provided his updated draft to Council. Asked if he would have provided it to the public, he responded, “No.”

Grove said he would still pursue the ordinance even though many spoke against the draft Thursday.

“I will continue to pursue it,” he said. “Let Council vote it down or they can put their plan on the table.”

Grove said the ordinance is aimed at people who do not “contribute” to Belington.

“These people do not contribute to the town at all,” he said. “They come and sit on the couch and wait to collect a check.”

Grove said there is a “culture of entitlement,” with some moving to Belington because they can’t get HUD benefits in Virginia. Those people move to West Virginia and qualify for government assistance, he said.

“We have a landlord that provides low-income housing and they can rent his houses anytime,” he said. “They don’t come with lawn mowers or gardening tools.”

Grove confirmed he has created drafts of a license and application to go with the proposed ordinance, but he declined to provide copies of them.

He also declined to make public any notes he has made since creating the draft of the proposed ordinance.

Grove said the draft ordinance may be ready for consideration by December.

“My term ends in March and I don’t really care,” he said.

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