During an emergency meeting of the Marlinton Housing Authority last
Wednesday, members vowed to do everything within their power to help owners of fire-affected properties in Marlinton rebuild at the same locations.
The Authority met at the Municipal Building to review its powers granted under state law. Attorney Steve Hunter read portions of the state code dealing with housing authorities and explained the Authority’s powers.
The Authority is composed of chairman Fred Burns, Jr., Roger Trusler, John Snyder, Jim Smith and Tommy Dunbrack. Marlinton Mayor Joe Smith sat in on Wednesday’s meeting.
Burns said he wants the Authority to meet in private with fire-affected property owners.
“My big concern is what the Housing Authority can do to help the property owners to bring Marlinton back in some semblance of the way it was before,” he said. “I would like to have a meeting with those property owners, but I’m not going to air their business in a public meeting. I’d like to bring them in, in executive session, to sit down at this table with us and see what we can do to help them.
“Maybe they’re going to take their insurance and leave. Well, that’s not good for the Town of Marlinton. If there’s any way that this Authority can help them and entice them to stay in Marlinton, to rebuild, if we can get grants or borrow money to help them in any way, then I think we need to do that, because this is the heart of our town. We can’t just say,’well, it’s done,’ and walk away from it.”
Burns proposed a meeting with Governor Earl Ray Tomblin.
“I would like to see a meeting with the Governor,” he said. “I would like to go with the Mayor and represent the Housing Authority, to see what aid that he has to help us. It’s a known fact that the Governor’s Office appropriated $8.5 million, several years ago, for flood control for Marlinton. It doesn’t look to me like the Corps of Engineers is ever going to do anything with the Town of Marlinton flood control. That money is down there in the Greenbrier Valley Soil Conservation office. Now, the Governor wants it back. Somehow, if we can’t use it for flood control, then I think we can use it for redevelopment or something.”
Any new construction in the downtown flood zone would have to be built above the 100-year floodplain elevation. Smith said that would involve only about a four-foot increase in elevation.
“If you can visualize the [Marlinton Railroad] Depot, the platform of the Depot and the floor of the Depot, which we just recently rebuilt, it is above the 100-year floodplain,” he said. “So, if you can visualize that – we’re not talking eight or 10 feet up in the air, which would be sort of awkward looking. It only has to be raised about four feet on Main Street in some areas. The elevation changes, but it’s not a massive raising.”
Smith said insurance companies are responsible for debris removal and that he gave them a deadline of two weeks to start clearing the lots. The Mayor said asbestos testing would have to be done.
“I’ve been in contact with the [Pocahontas County] Solid Waste Authority,” he said. “They will take the debris up there, but we have to have it tested for asbestos. If there’s asbestos in it, they cannot accept it at our landfill, which means we’d have to go to a hazardous waste landfill, or someplace where it does not have runoff into the river or Knapps Creek.”
West Virginia Code Section 16-15 declares the intent for housing authorities as, “engage in low and moderate cost housing development and slum clearance projects.” To that end, the law gives authorities broad powers, including the power to purchase and sell real estate, borrow and lend money, and exercise eminent domain.
The law provides that housing authorities may “participate in cooperative arrangements with persons and for-profit entities whose purpose is solely that of pecuniary gain, as well as with non-profit entities and persons who seek no pecuniary gain.” In addition, authorities may participate as a general or limited partner, coventurer, shareholder, principal, investor, lender, guarantor and contracting party.
Burns said he does not contemplate the Authority acquiring fire-affected properties.
“I wouldn’t even consider that now, until we sit down with those property owners and see what their plans are,” he said. “That’s their property, we have no jurisdiction, but we can work with them to get them enticed to stay there and rebuild – and that’s our goal.”
“I’m big on property rights,” he said. “I hope that the property owners are committed to bringing this back, the way it needs to come back,” he said. “I feel that my role is just to help them.”
Burns said agreements would be made for any public assistance provided.
“Say we got a $1 million grant and we put $1 million back into that block, helping these people rebuild back, exactly like it was,” he said. “Then, there has to be some commitment that they’re going to be there and if they are to sell it, to refund the money back to us. But these are things that are clear out in left field right now. We can’t do anything until we sit at this table with those property owners and see what their goal is and what their plans are, and then we can implement our goals.”
Dunbrack echoed the sentiment of many Marlinton residents.
“That fire was just another nail in Marlinton’s coffin,” he said. “I’d hate to see that turned into a parking lot.”
“We can’t let that happen,” replied Burns.
The Housing Authority plans to meet with the three owners of the buildings destroyed by Sunday’s fire to determine their needs and desires. No dates have been set for those meetings.