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Councils unite to fight blight in eastern suburbs

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Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, 4:41 a.m.
 

The executive director of the Steel Valley Council of Governments said the feasibility of financing a local land bank to acquire blighted properties will be studied in the months to come.

An Lewis said on Thursday that Steel Valley, Turtle Creek Valley and Twin Rivers councils of governments have a target date of mid-2014 for a business plan for what could be the second land bank in Pennsylvania.

They have joined together to counter a problem with blight found in all of their member municipalities.

“We didn't know it was everywhere,” Lewis said at the Tri-COG Summit on the Financial Impact of Blight on Thursday at Community College of Allegheny County's Boyce Campus.

“We are evolving to more regional issues and to trying to find solutions,” said Turtle Creek Valley's executive director Amanda Settelmaier.

Under a 2012 state law, an entity could be created by ordinances in participating municipalities, and by intergovernmental agreements among them, for the conversion of vacant or tax-delinquent properties into productive use.

“Everyone is going to have to collaborate,” Twin Rivers' executive director John Palyo said.

Dauphin County has established a land bank. Pittsburgh is considering the idea.

Land banks and other ways to deal with blight were discussed in a three-hour gathering that included officials of many of the 41 municipalities and 15 school districts covered by the three councils of governments.

A study by the Delta Development Group Inc. commissioned by the three councils was formally unveiled at the summit.

It shows that there are 20,077 vacant lots and 7,158 lots with blighted structures, with the heaviest concentrations in Wilkinsburg, McKeesport, Clairton and North Braddock.

Other large clusters of blighted lots were found in Homestead, Duquesne, West Elizabeth and Elizabeth.

The study was funded by the Pittsburgh Foundation with grants from the state Department of Community and Economic Development and matching funds from Tri-COG communities.

On an annual basis, the direct cost to municipal services tops $10.7 million, while the direct cost related to the loss of tax revenue is more than $8.6 million.

The study found the indirect costs associated with a loss of property value is between $218 million and $247 million, while the indirect costs associated with the loss of real estate taxes is estimated to be between $8.5 million and $9.7 million.

The three councils said other effects of blight can be seen in how much is spent on collections of delinquent taxes and how much is spent out of federal Community Development Block Grant funds on demolition.

“This is an issue that cuts across the entire county,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald told the gathering.

Despite a turnover of 500 properties in the past six years under a new vacant property review program, Fitzgerald said, “We're not getting ahead of the problem.”

While he'd like to see a day when federal Community Development Block Grants and state Redevelopment Capital Assistance Program funds can fully leverage local resources, Fitzgerald said, “You have a lot of partners across the region. The corporate community and the foundation community are looking for ways to help.”

The Local Government Academy participated in Thursday's summit. It is planning a three-part training series, “New Tools in the Blight Fight.”

The first part, “Options in Dealing with Dilapidated or Abandoned Properties,” is scheduled on Oct. 15 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Shuffleboard Room of the Carnegie Library of Homestead, 510 E. Tenth Ave., Munhall.

Subsequent programs include a session on relationships between rental property owners and municipalities on Nov. 11 in Millvale and a discussion of “how to put together a suite of ordinances to protect neighborhood quality” on Dec. 10 in Green Tree.

Details and registration for all the programs are available at localgovernmentacademy.org.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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