DEALING WITH BLIGHTED PROPERTIES
I. Problems Associated With Blighted and Deteriorated Properties
In 1994 House Joint Resolution 489 and the accompanying report prepared by the
Department of Housing and Community Development, recognized that the existence of
blighted and deteriorated buildings erodes the quality of life in many of Virginia’s
• Blighted and deteriorated properties create potential nuisances and can become a
convenient haven for criminal activities.
• The presence of blighted and neglected properties impair or arrest growth and
development of a neighborhood and often lead to an exodus of current
businesses and residents, threatening the spread of blight to other properties and
•Vandalism of a single property or structure can have significant negative
economic and environmental impact on an entire neighborhood.
In 2007 the problems associated with blighted and deteriorated properties are still as true
as they were in 1994.
II. Authority to Deal with Blighted and Problem Properties
The General Assembly has given localities a number of tools to use in their efforts to deal
with blighted properties—the Uniform Statewide Building Code, a variety of nuisance
laws, spot blight statutes, delinquent tax statutes, etc. However, none of these statutes
will work in every situation. It is necessary to consider a variety of options when
deciding how to best deal with a particular blighted property. In trying to determine the
best approach to use when dealing with a blighted property it is helpful to take a team
approach. A number of localities have established inter-agency or inter-departmental
task forces to deal with blighted properties. These task forces consist of a variety of
members that have a role in dealing with blighted properties. For example, Lynchburg
has a Code Enforcement Task Force, consisting of the following members:
• Building Officials • Zoning and Nuisance Inspectors • Housing Authority
• Police • Public Works (utilities issues) • Collections Division (taxes)
• Fire Marshall • Commonwealth’s Attorney • Local Government Attorney
• Ad hoc members as needed
The Code Enforcement Task Force meets on a regular basis to discuss problem
properties, share information, talk over possible solutions for dealing with particular
properties and identify the resources that are available to remediate problem properties.
Remedies are selected, task force members are given assignments for their departments
and progress is monitored. In addition, task force members conduct walk-through
inspections of neighborhoods and make contact with community organizations (e.g.
neighborhood watches, civic associations, etc) to help identify problem properties in the
community. The City has had more success in using this approach to dealing with
problem properties than when each department dealt with problem properties on an
One area where local governments have not been given a great deal of authority is
dealing with properties that do not rise to the level of a public nuisance but are simply
eyesores. Government officials are often pressured to declare something a threat to the
public health, safety or welfare when it is actually nothing more than an annoying
condition. The Virginia Supreme Court and the Attorney General have advised that
aesthetic considerations alone do not justify the exercise of local police powers to
regulate or control private property. See, Roanoke v. Bolling, 101 Va. 182(1903), Bd. of
Sup. James City County v. Rowe, 216 Va. 128, 145 (1975) and 1993 Opinions of the
Attorney General at page 79.
III. Uniform Statewide Building Code/Property Maintenance Code
One of the most valuable tools available to local governments in their efforts to deal with
blighted and deteriorated properties is the property maintenance provisions of the
Uniform Statewide Building Code (USBC). While the property maintenance code is not
a cure-all for blighted properties, it can be a valuable resource in helping local
governments deal with problem properties. It is often easier to put together a case of
building code violations than to prove a structure is being used for illegal activities such
as the unlawful use of controlled substances, prostitution, etc.
A. Unsafe or Unfit Properties
Under the property maintenance code building code officials have the authority to secure,
repair, vacate, condemn and even demolish properties that are unsafe or unfit for human
1. Vacating a Structure. A code official can order a structure that is unfit for
human habitation to be vacated. Once the structure is posted, entering the building is
prohibited except as authorized by the code official to make inspections, to perform
required repairs or to demolish the building. See, USBC, Part III, Section 105.6 Posting
2. Revocation of the Certificate of Occupancy. A code official can revoke the
certificate of occupancy for an unsafe structure. See, USBC, Part III, Section 105.7
Revocation of certificate of occupancy.
3. Vacant and Open Structures. When an unsafe structure or a structure unfit for
human habitation is open for public entry the code official has the authority to authorize
the necessary work to make the structure secure. See, USBC, Part III, Section 105.8
Vacant and open structures.
4. Emergency Repairs and Demolition. The code official may authorize
emergency repairs to or demolition of unsafe structures or structures unfit for human
habitation when there is an immediate danger of any portion of such structure collapsing
or falling and when life is endangered. The costs of the emergency repairs or demolition
can be billed to the owner of the premises and such costs, if unpaid, constitute a lien
against the property. See, USBC, Part III, Sections 105.1 General and 105.9 Emergency
repairs and demolition.
C. Selective Enforcement of the Property Maintenance Code
If a locality does not wish to enforce the entire property maintenance code it may be able
to elect to enforce selected portions of the code. The property maintenance code does not
contain language specifically allowing a locality to enforce only selective portions of the
code. However, a number of localities have taken the position that since they have the
express authority to enforce all of the property maintenance code they have the implied
power to elect to enforce only selected portions of the code.
D. Inspection of Rental Properties
Section 36-105.1:1. of the State Code authorizes localities to adopt a residential rental
dwelling unit inspection ordinance. A locality must designate an area as a rental inspection
district based upon findings that the rental units within that district are blighted,
deteriorating or in danger of deterioration, that the living conditions in the area are unsafe,
indecent, or unsanitary, or that that there is a need to protect the health, safety and welfare
of occupants of dwelling units in the district. A locality may conduct periodic inspections
of rental properties to determine compliance with the property maintenance code. See also,
USBC, Part III, Section 104.1.1 Rental inspections.
IV. Other Options for Dealing with Blighted and Deteriorated Properties
While the Uniform Statewide Building Code is a very effective tool to dealing with
problem properties it will not apply in every situation. The following is a list of other
sections of the State Code a locality may be able to use to deal with problem properties.
A. Abatement of Nuisances
A nuisance is any act, omission or use of property which is hurtful to the health,
tranquility or morals of the community. Ritholz v. Commonwealth, 184 Va. 339, 350, 35
S.E.2d 210 (1945). Nuisances fall into two categories, public nuisances and private
nuisances. A public nuisance is a condition that affects or has potential to affect the
health, safety or welfare of the general public rather than just one individual or a small
number of individuals. A private nuisance is a condition that unreasonably interferes with
a private property owner's use and enjoyment of his property but does not affect the
general public. City of Virginia Beach v. Murphy, 239 Va. at 353, 355, 389 S.E.2d 462,
Several sections of the State Code give local governments the authority to eliminate
“public nuisances” in order to protect the public health, safety or welfare. These sections
enable a locality to not only deal with blighted structures but also such things as illegal
dump sites, accumulations of debris and rubbish, the excessive growth of weeds, etc.
1. Section 15.2-900 of the State Code allows a locality to maintain an action to
compel a responsible party to abate a public nuisance. A public nuisance includes
but is not limited to, any dangerous or unhealthy substances that have been released,
spilled or accumulated and unsafe, dangerous or unsanitary buildings, walls or structures.
A locality can take immediate action to abate a nuisance if it poses an immediate and
imminent threat and can recover the cost of the abatement from the owner. The
provisions of Section 15.2-900 are self-executing and do not require the enactment of an
ordinance by the locality.
2. Section 15.2-901 of the State Code authorizes a locality to adopt an ordinance
requiring a property owner to remove trash, garbage, refuse, litter and other substances
which might endanger the safety of residents and to require a property owner to cut grass,
weeds or other foreign growth on vacant developed or undeveloped property. The locality
can perform the removal or cutting if the owner fails to do so after having been given
reasonable notice and to bill the owner for the costs. A lien can be placed on the property
for unpaid costs and such lien has the same priority as a lien for unpaid taxes. The
locality can waive the lien in order to effectuate the sale of the property. The provisions
of Section15.2-901 are not self-executing and require the enactment of an ordinance by
3. Section 15.2-906 of the State Code allows a locality to adopt an ordinance
requiring a property owner to remove, repair, or secure any building, wall or other
structure which might endanger public health or safety. The locality can abate such
nuisance after giving the owner written notice to do so and after publishing such notice in
a newspaper of general circulation in the community. This section also allows a locality
to make exterior maintenance to a building in order to prevent deterioration and can be
helpful in preserving historic properties. The owner can be billed for the cost of the
abatement and a lien can be placed on the property to recover the unpaid costs. Such lien
has the same priority as liens for unpaid local taxes. The locality can waive the lien in
order to effectuate the sale of the property. The provisions of Section15.2-906 are not
self-executing and require the enactment of an ordinance by the locality.
3. Section 15.2-1115 allows cities and towns to adopt ordinances requiring the
abatement of all nuisances, including but not limited to weeds, snow removal, thee
drainage of stagnant water, the removal of unsafe or dangerous buildings and unhealthy
substances, etc.. The municipal corporation can abate the nuisance if the owner fails to do
so after having been given reasonable notice, bill the owner for the costs and collect the
costs in the same manner as unpaid state and local axes are collected. The provisions of
Section 15.2-1115 only
apply to cities and not and not to counties.
B. Drug Blighted Properties
Section 15.2-907 of the Code of Virginia allows a locality to adopt an ordinance to
remove, repair or secure buildings or other structures where (i) “drug blight,” exists on
the property, (ii) the locality has used diligence to abate the drug blight, and (iii) the drug
blight constitutes a present threat to the public’s health, safety or welfare. The owner of
the property must be given notice and an opportunity for an administrative hearing. The
locality’s expense in taking corrective action is chargeable to the owner of the property
and a lien can be placed against the property to recover such expenses.
C. Bawdy Places, Prostitution
Section 15.2-908.1 of the State Code allows a locality to adopt an ordinance to require a
property owner to correct a bawdy place. A bawdy place is defined as any place or
building which is used for lewdness or prostitution. If the owner fails to abate the bawdy
house the locality can do so and the cost of abatement is chargeable to the owner of the
property. A lien can be placed against the property to recover such costs and such lien has
the same priority as unpaid local taxes.
Section 48-7 of the State Code provides that “whoever shall knowingly erect, establish,
continue, maintain, use , own, occupy or lease any building, erection or place used for the
purpose of lewdness, assignation or prostitution in the Commonwealth is guilty of a
nuisance, and the building, erection, or place, the ground itself, in or upon which such
lewdness, assignation or prostitution is conducted, permitted or carried on, continued, or
exists and the furniture, fixtures, musical instruments and contents are also declared a
nuisance, and shall be enjoined and abated as hereinafter provide.” The Commonwealth
Attorney, the Attorney General or any responsible citizen of the Commonwealth may
maintain an action to perpetually enjoin such nuisance. Such action can be brought
against the person or persons conducting or maintaining the nuisance and against the
owner or agent of the building or ground upon which the nuisance exists. See, Section
48-8 of the Code of Virginia.
D. Registration of Vacant Properties
Section 15.2-1127 of the State Code allows a city to adopt an ordinance requiring the
registration of any building that is vacant for more than 12 months. The city can charge a
registration fee of up to $25.00. A penalty of $50.00 can be imposed for the failure to
register and the penalty can be up to $250.00 for the failure to register a building located
in conservation or blighted area.
E. Drug Activity Properties as a Common Nuisance
Section 18.2-258 of the State Code provides that any structure, vehicle, aircraft or vessel
that is frequented with the knowledge of the owner, operator, lessor, tenant, or manager
by persons under the influence of drugs, or for possessing, manufacturing, or distributing
drugs is a “common nuisance.” A person who knowingly permits, keeps or maintains a
common nuisance is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor. A second or subsequent offense is
a class 6 felony. After holding a hearing the court is authorized to close the premises.
Also, this section allows the owner to seek the immediate termination of a rental
agreement for a tenant violator. The section further provides for the forfeiture of the
property in certain instances. Section 19.2-386.22 of the State Code also provides that
any real property used in substantial connection with drug sales or distribution is subject
F. Alcohol Violations
Section 4.1-317 of the State Code provides that “all houses, boathouses, buildings, club
or fraternity or lodge rooms, boats cars and places of every description where alcoholic
beverages are manufactured, stored, sold dispensed, given away or used contrary to law,
by any scheme or device whatever, shall be deemed common nuisances.”
The maintenance of an alcohol-related nuisance constitutes a class 1 misdemeanor. The
Commonwealth’s Attorney can initiate forfeiture proceedings against the property and
any owner, lessor, or lienholder. See, Section 4.1-317(B) of the Code of Virginia. In
addition, any citizen of the locality where the nuisance is located may bring a suit in
equity to enjoin the nuisance. See, Section 4.1-335 of the Code of Virginia.
G. Spot Blight
Section 36-3 of the State Code defines “blighted property” as:
"Blighted property" means any individual commercial, industrial, or residential structure
or improvement that endangers the public's health, safety, or welfare because the
structure or improvement upon the property is dilapidated, deteriorated, or violates
minimum health and safety standards, or any structure or improvement previously
designated as blighted pursuant to § 36-49.1:1, under the process for determination of
1. Section 36-49.1:1 of the State Code allows a locality to acquire or repair
blighted properties anywhere within the locality. The owner of a blighted property must
be given notice and an opportunity to prepare a plan to correct the blight. If the owner
fails to prepare an adequate plan the planning commission holds a public hearing on the
condition of the property and the planning commission’s findings and recommendations
are reviewed by the local governing body. The locality can then proceed to repair or
acquire the blighted property. The owner of the property can be billed for the costs of
any repair or disposal of the property. A locality cannot use this section to acquire
occupied property unless the property has been declared unfit for human habitation.
2. Section 36-19.5 of the State Code authorizes a redevelopment and housing
authority to acquire a blighted single-family or multi-family dwelling through purchase
or eminent domain. The authority must give the owner of a blighted property written
notice and 60 days to correct the blight or to prepare a satisfactory plan to do so. If the
owner fails to correct the blight or prepare an adequate plan the authority asks the local
governing body to adopt a resolution authorizing the acquisition of the property. The
procedure authorized by Section 36-19.5 is less cumbersome than the spot blight
procedure authorized by Section 36-49.1:1 and does not contain the prohibition against
acquiring occupied properties. However, this procedure is limited to a housing authority’s
area of operation and can only be used for residential properties.
H. Use of Special Grand Juries to Investigate Public Nuisances
Sections 48-1 through 48-6 of the Code of Virginia establish a procedure by which five
or more citizens can petition the local circuit court to impanel a special grand jury to
investigate whether or not an activity constitutes a nuisance. The court is required to
summon a special grand jury to investigate the complaint. Under these sections both the
owner who allowed the nuisance to continue and the person who caused or created the
nuisance can be held responsible. If the grand jury finds that the activity complained of
is a nuisance, the person creating or permitting the nuisance to continue is subject to a
fine of up to $10,000 and can be ordered to remove the nuisance and pay the removal
In the case of Commonwealth of Virginia v. Elmore D. Ford and Shelia M. Ford, Law
No. 4848, Circuit Court of York County (decided August 10, 1990) York County was
able to use this procedure to declare a single family residence a public nuisance because
of the behavior of the residents. The family that lived in the home dispersed alcoholic
beverages to individuals that were not residents of the home; allowed the property to
remain in a constant state of disrepair; allowed their guests to engage in rowdy and
inappropriate behavior; both the inhabitants and their guests continually harassed
members of the neighborhood; regularly used vulgar and insidious language; and,
engaged in lewd and obscene behavior. The court described the home as “a place where
people can go and do anything they want, a lawless place,” declared it to be “the worst
public nuisance case I’ve ever heard of” and fined the owners of the home $5,000. and
ordered the home vacated.
I. Delinquent Real Estate Taxes
1. Section 58.1-3965 of the State Code allows a locality to file a petition to have
property with an assessed value of $50,000 or less, sold for delinquent real estate taxes.
The statute creates a presumption of abandonment for any property assessed at $50,000
or less if (i) the taxes are delinquent for two or more years and (a) the land or structure
has been declared a nuisance (b) the owner has failed to abate the nuisance after having
been given proper notice and (c) the locality has abated the nuisance, placed a lien on the
property for the abatement costs and the lien is unpaid; or (ii) the taxes are delinquent for
five years or longer. Other properties, regardless of their value, may be sold at a
delinquent tax sale following the second anniversary of the date on which the taxes have
become due and in the case of real property upon which there is situated a structure that
has been condemned by the local building official, the property may be sold after the first
anniversary of the date on which the taxes have become due.
2. Section 58.1-3970.1 of the State Code authorizes the circuit court to transfer the
title of a tax delinquent property to a locality when the property is assessed at $50,000 or
less, the parcel has delinquent taxes or a nuisance abatement lien, and the taxes, liens and
penalties exceed fifty percent of the assessed value of the property or if the taxes alone
exceed twenty-five percent of the assessed value of the parcel.
J. Inoperable Motor Vehicles
Sections 15.2-904 and 15.2-905 of the State Code give localities the authority to enact
ordinances making it unlawful for any person to keep an inoperable motor vehicle, except
within a fully enclosed building or structure or otherwise shielded or screened from view,
on any property zoned for residential or commercial or agricultural purposes. An
“inoperable motor vehicle” means any vehicle which is not in operating condition; or
which for a period of sixty days or longer has been partially or totally disassembled by
the removal of tires and wheels, the engine or other essential parts required for operation
of the vehicle; or which does not display neither valid license plates or a valid inspection
decal. “Shielded or screened from view” means not visible by someone standing at
ground level from outside of the property on which the subject vehicle is located. If an
owner can demonstrate that he is actively restoring or repairing a vehicle, and if the
vehicle is shielded or screened from view, such vehicle and one additional inoperative
motor vehicle being used for the restoration or repair may remain on the property.
K. Abandoned Vessels and Derelict Piers
Section 15.2-909 of the State Code allows a locality to adopt an ordinance requiring
property owners to secure abandoned vessels or derelict wharfs, piers, pilings or
bulkheads that threaten public safety or are a threat to navigation. If the property owner
fails to correct the problem the locality after giving reasonable notice can take corrective
action. The locality may bill the owner for the costs incurred and place a lien against the
property to recover such costs.
Section 15.2-903 of the State Code allows a locality to adopt ordinances regulating the
maintenance and operation of automobile graveyards and junkyards, to impose license
taxes on such facilities and to prescribe fine and other punishment for violations of such
ordinances. See also, 1984-1985 Opinions of the Attorney General at page 91. Further,
Section 33.1-348(c) of the State Code provides that no junkyard shall be established, any
portion of which is within 1,000 feet of the nearest right-of-way of any interstate or
primary highway or within 500 feet of the nearest edge of the right-of-way of any
highway or city street, except (i) junkyards which are screened from sight by natural
objects, plantings, fences or other appropriate means (ii) junkyards which are located in
areas zoned for industrial use or in unzoned industrial areas as determined by the
Commonwealth Transportation Board and (iii) junkyards which are not visible from the
main-traveled way of a highway or city street.
A locality can seek an injunction (a court order commanding or preventing an action) to
require a property owner to remedy a problem property. When seeking an injunction for
violation of a local ordinance it is not necessary to show irreparable harm or any other
common law requirements. All you have to prove is the violation itself. See, Gwinn v.
Alward, 235 Va. 616 (1988). Also, if a court orders violations to be corrected, the court’s
order can be enforced through contempt of court proceedings. See, Deeds v. Gilmer, 162
Va. 157, 261-263 (1934).
There are a number of provisions in the State Code that specifically authorize the use of
injunctions when dealing with problem properties.
• Section 8.01-620 of the Code of Virginia authorizes a circuit court to issue injunctions
to enforce the provisions of the Uniform Statewide Building Code.
• Section 15.2-2286(A.)(4.) of the Code of Virginia authorizes a circuit court to issue
injunctions for local zoning violations.
• Sections 18.2-258 and 18.2.258.01 of the State Code allow the local Commonwealth’s
Attorney or any citizen to maintain an action in the name of the Commonwealth to enjoin
any property where controlled substances are being used, manufactured, possessed or
• Section 27-101 of the Code of Virginia authorizes courts to issue injunctions to enforce
the provisions of the Virginia Statewide Fire Code.
• Section 3.1-296.21of the Code of Virginia authorizes the courts to issue injunctions to
compel the removal of noxious weeds.
• Section 15.2-1432 of the Code of Virginia authorizes a circuit court to enjoin
continuing violations of local ordinances.
V. Collection of Costs or Expenses
Many of the sections of the State Code that authorize localities to deal with problem
properties also allow localities to recover their costs or expenses from the property
owners. There are a number of procedures a locality can use to try and collect its costs or
A. Liens against the Property
Several sections of the State Code provide that the costs or expenses a locality incurs in
dealing with a problem property shall constitute a lien against the property ranking on
parity with liens for unpaid taxes and can be collected in the same manner that delinquent
taxes are collected. See, Sections 15.2-901(B), 15.2-906(3), 15.2-907, 15.2-908.1, 15.2-
909 and 15.2-1115(B) of the Code of Virginia and the Uniform Statewide Building Code,
Part III, Sections 105.1-General and 105.9-Emergency repairs and demolition.
B. Virginia Setoff Debt Collection Act
If a property owner fails to pay the charges incurred by a locality in dealing with a
problem property, the locality can enter the unpaid debt into the Virginia Setoff Debt
Collection Program. Once the debt is entered, the State will withhold the debtor’s tax
refunds, lottery winnings, etc. and send such monies to the locality. See, Sections 58.1-
520 through 58.1-535 of the Code of Virginia.
C. Seizure of Assets Held by a Third Party
Section 58.1-3952 of the State Code allows a locality to collect a debtor’s delinquent
taxes or “other charges” from the assets held by a third party. This section can be used
by a locality to seize bank accounts, garnish wages, seize rents that are held by a tenant,
etc. It is not necessary for a locality to file a civil suit against the debtor in order to use
these collection techniques.
For a more detailed discussion of the remediation of blighted and problem properties see the
Handbook of Virginia Local Government Law, Chapter 22 Administrative Inspections and the
Building Code and Chapter 28. Blight Remediation.