By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
After listening to the public’s suggestions and concerns, the Bluefield Planning Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend a change in College Avenue’s zoning to the Bluefield City Board to turn the avenue from a multi-family dwelling to a single-family dwelling area.
Greg Shrewsbury, Bluefield’s economic development director, summarized the proposal. It includes changing the zoning so it will allow only single-family dwellings in the future. If the zoning is changed, it will not impact tenants or landlords now on College Avenue, he said. Current multi-family properties will be “grandfathered in.”
“It’s also to stop the proliferation of what we view as landlords not necessarily taking care of their properties,” Shrewsbury said. “I will say that over the last couple of weeks under the direction of (City Manager) Jim Ferguson, we have been spending more time with code enforcement. It’s obvious that some of the landlords are just not making basic investments such as replacing windows.”
Shrewsbury said College Avenue would not be the only street the city would ask the commission to consider for zoning changes.
“Some zoning is probably dated and we need to look at it,” he said.
Most speakers addressing the commission supported the proposal.
“I would like to see it changed,” Doug Harmon of Shenandoah Avenue said of the rezoning. “I don’t want two families living in a house. I want to see all that trash cleaned up. It’s gotten so you’ve got trash all over the street. It’s a mess.”
Harmon asked if a multi-family home would keep that status if it were sold. Dave Shields, the commission’s chairman, replied that such a dwelling would remain a multi-family structure if it changed owners.
Another resident said he has seen College Avenue change, and not for the better.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” said John Beckett, who lives on the 1500 block of College Avenue. “When you lived on College Avenue, you had a pretty nice place to live. Now I drive up College Avenue at least two or three times a day, and it’s atrocious.”
In many cases, trash is not being handled properly and three or more cars are parked in a home’s yard, he added. He did not agree that a multi-family dwelling should remain one after it has been sold.
Art Riley, who lives on College Avenue’s 1100 block, suggested doing a home inventory citywide to determine which homes were multi-family structures so single-family homes cannot suddenly be changed without permits.
“I’m very much in favor of this ordinance. If the creeping blight is not stopped, then the whole upper half of College Avenue is going to look like just what these gentlemen said,” Riley told the commission.
One property owner, James Mitchell on College Avenue’s 600 block, agreed with the zoning change “to a degree.” Property owners should have an option about how they use their property, he said. Some tenant applicants are not being screened.
“ It’s not the place itself — it’s whom you rent to,” he said.
Blaine Braithwaite, executive director of the South Bluefield Neighborhood Association, said his organization had not taken a position for or against the rezoning proposal. Its members are concerned about how the proposal could impact property ownership. The concept of personal property and property ownership includes enabling people to use that their property for economic advantage, he said.
“It seems to me when we try to restrict people’s ability to make money off of their capital investment, we end up enacting the law of unintended consequences and actually inhibit our community’s ability as a whole to have a diversified and vibrant economy,” Braithwaite said.
The second issue is zoning applies specifically to land use, he added. It does not apply to buildings and what the building’s standards should be. One problem is whether an owner of a multi-family dwelling could build a new one if it burned own, he said.
“It’s apples and oranges that we’re talking about,” Braithwaite said.
Shrewsbury went to the lectern again and said that property values are “a big piece of the discussion.” People feel that their property is being devalued by “ a handful of landlords,” he said.
Another property owner, Emily Waters of Spring Grove Avenue, said out-of-state landlords have been buying homes, turn them into apartments, and do not maintain them. She estimated that her own property has lost about $20,000 of value during the last 10 years.
“These out-of-town landlords buy homes cheaply and let 10 to 12 people live in a house,” she said.
The planning commission voted unanimously to recommend the zoning change to the Bluefield City Board. One of the commission’s members, Ted Curtis, made an additional motion to encourage the board to continue its work to enforce building codes. The motion was approved unanimously.
Mayor Linda Whalen said the board would look at the commission’s recommendation during its Dec. 11 meeting. The meeting begins at noon. Board member Pete Sternloff encouraged members of the public to sign up at least 10 minutes before the meeting starts if they wish to address the board about building codes and other issues.
— Contact Greg Jordan at