ROCKBRIDGE — Lew Barbini, whose family company, Hocking Hills Adventures, LLC, operates the Hocking Hills Family Fun Center and Riverside Campground in Rockbridge, was recently showing The Logan Daily News around the grounds. As he drove into the campsite’s entrance, he called attention to the unsightly wreckage of a burned-out house that sits nearby in plain sight.
“This is where people come in to register for the camping,” Barbini said – adding sardonically, “Welcome to the Hocking Hills.”
Barbini said the house burned some four years ago, and has been left in pretty much its current condition ever since. He’s concerned about the impression it makes on visitors coming to a region that’s renowned for its natural beauty and tourism attractions, and says it’s hardly the only example of blight dotting the local landscape, which has its share of dilapidated or abandoned homes, junked cars and scattered trash.
“As you can see, that hits you as soon as you come in,” he said. “We have people who come from all over, and when people come here, that’s their impression of what they expect to see. A lot of things here are natural beauty – the rock formations, the waterfalls – we’ve got all kinds of natural resources. On the other hand, though, we’ve also got things like this burned-out house, which might be one of the worst, but there are others.”
Barbini attempted to buy the site just so he could demolish the gutted structure, but was unsuccessful. He said he’s also sought help from local government to address the issue, but again without much in the way of results. The government entities, he said, have all given him some version of the same general answer: We would like to help, but there’s little we can do, especially without county zoning regulations, to compel the razing of a structure on private property.
“That is private property, and we’re not zoned,” said Rick Hacker, vice-president of the Good Hope Township trustees. “There’s nothing legally we can do.” He added, “That’s not the only burned-out house, either,” suggesting that the problem exists all across Hocking County.
Barbini heard a similar message when he took his case to the county commissioners, though he acknowledges Commissioner Sandra Ogle for making an effort. Ogle herself expressed frustration at not being able to do more.
“I sympathize with Mr. Barbini – I’ve been up to look at (the house),” she said. “It’s kind of a complicated situation. One thing is, there is no zoning, so you don’t have a lot to back you up… I don’t know what to do – it’s a dead end.”
Hocking County Health Commissioner Doug Fisher said his agency is likewise limited in its ability to compel demolition of the house’s remains.
“These types of properties are throughout Hocking County, and they’re definitely eyesores, and concerning,” Fisher said. Many such properties, he added, are “just kind of left unaddressed, because there’s not regulations to deal with them.”
He held out hope that the county prosecutor’s office, which met with Barbini and the health department earlier this year, may be able to figure out a way to address the issue. Hocking County Prosecutor Ryan Black confirmed that the problem has been brought to his attention, and said he’s willing to look into it, but that first he needs to learn more.
“If it’s a problem that can be addressed, I’d certainly like to address it,” Black said. “The matter’s been brought to my attention, but I am investigating further specifics and information that is needed to determine if in fact it is something that the prosecutor’s office would have legal recourse to involve itself in.”
Barbini, meanwhile, sees the problem as bigger than any particular eyesore.
“What I would like to push is to have a real program that deals with the problem of burned out houses, junked cars, but also has kind of an educational component… starting with the young,” he said.
Why, Barbini asks, can’t the county use some of the funding coming in from COVID relief programs like the Paycheck Protection Program, with perhaps some financial contributions from local tourism businesses, to start a fund for cleaning up problem sites? He suggests that the county might create a non-profit devoted to county beautification, with the Hocking Hills Tourism Association possibly playing a leadership role.
“I think this is an issue that’s not actually connected to zoning, but is a cultural issue, and one that is very important in today’s society, and in the community that we live in,” he said.
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