Westmoreland land bank ready to go to work

| Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 12:51 a.m.

Westmoreland County now has a land bank, but that comes as news to some officials in the county's Alle-Kiski Valley communities.

One Alle-Kiski Valley official who is aware of it is Lower Burrell Mayor Don Kinosz. Kinosz is chairman of the Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority, which created the county's land bank as a separate organization.

Kinosz said it is designed to be a weapon against blight and a tool for economic development.

He said it's one of the first in the state.

“I really believe that this is really going to have an impact with blight,” Kinosz said.

Essentially, the land bank will buy properties that have been abandoned and are deteriorating. It will clear the blight through demolition and sell the property to developers who will build on it and return it to the tax rolls. What's more, the land bank will be able to do that without a lot of delays, Kinosz said.

“It's an accelerated, expeditious way to remove blight,” he said. “If everything goes right, it should remove blight and replace it with cleaned- up properties that are generating revenue.”

Municipalities across the county can benefit by becoming land bank members. The cost is $5,000, which is to provide a pool of working capital.

The fact that land banks are restricted by state law to communities with populations of 10,000 residents or more is one reason Kinosz thinks the county land bank will appeal to smaller towns. Even though towns such as Arnold are too small to have their own, they can join the county's land bank.

Ten Westmoreland communities have signed on to participate: Greensburg, Jeannette, Latrobe, Mt. Pleasant Borough, Mt. Pleasant Township, Scottdale, South Greensburg, Sewickley Township, Youngwood and West Newton.

“I am surprised to hear about it,” said Arnold Mayor Larry Milito. “I haven't heard anything about it from my redevelopment authority or our community development office.”

Ross Walker, Upper Burrell supervisors chairman, also hadn't heard about the land bank.

“We would be interested in doing something like that,” Walker said. “We don't have a great deal of properties that would be up for demolition except in the Lincoln Beach area, which we are looking at right now.”

Kinosz said some officials haven't heard about it because the land bank board of directors decided to limit the initial number of communities involved while they go through a considerable learning curve on how it works.

He said there are questions to be answered, such as how it will work with communities like Arnold and New Kensington, which have their own redevelopment programs. Local officials also want to determine how projects are prioritized.

But he said eventually all municipalities in the county will have the opportunity to join.

“It makes sense to do it on a countywide level,” Kinosz said. “There's need everywhere; we have needs in Lower Burrell.“

Part of the membership agreement requires communities to give half of the first five years of tax revenue to the land bank when it succeeds in converting blighted properties into viable developments. Again, that's to keep rebuilding the pool of capital on the order of a revolving bank account, he said.

“It's a great revitalization tool. You can finally steer redevelopment and help these communities tackle the blight,” said April Kopas, executive director of both the land bank and the Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority.

New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo wants Kopas to meet with his city's officials to learn more.

“We've been doing a pretty good job,” Guzzo said. “We have been doing the same thing but without calling it a land bank. We have been trying to get the neighbors to buy the (blighted) property, if they need more space. That's the way we have tried to market it.”

Jack Rutkowski, Mt. Pleasant Township supervisors chairman, said the county land bank is beneficial because it has the expertise needed to cut through red tape and acquire properties the township would have difficulty buying itself.

Kinosz said the properties will be bought through the county's judicial real estate sales where the properties are wiped clean of any local and state liens but not federal liens.

Kinosz said the land bank will receive preference if another party bids on a property. That will prevent land speculators from holding bigger projects hostage by buying one parcel and selling it for an excessive price.

“The land bank has the ability to go in there and trump any bid,” Kinosz said. “We can say, ‘We want that property,' and the land bank will get it.”

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or tyerace@tribweb.com. Jacob Tierney, a staff writer for Trib Total Media, contributed to this report.

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