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Mon Valley land bank efforts intensify

| Friday, March 14, 2014, 4:36 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Dravosburg Councilwoman Barbara Stevenson and Mayor Michelle Vezzani walk borough streets to get a closer look at abandoned properties that could be repurposed with future establishment of a multi-municipal land bank.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Dravosburg Mayor Michelle Vezzani and Councilwoman Barbara Stevenson get a closer look at an abandoned house along Richland Avenue from the rear alley.

As regional councils of governments work to establish one of the first multi-municipal land banks in the United States, they want Mon Valley leaders to understand the socio-economic decline associated with blight.

Steel Valley, Twin Rivers and Turtle Creek Valley councils of governments have been working together in researching the local impact of blight on their 41 member municipalities.

Operating from the standpoint that blighted and vacant properties undermine real estate value and cost significant dollars to maintain, the collaborative sought to develop municipal consensus regarding the magnitude of blight's negative impact.

The study addresses direct and indirect costs of vacant and blighted parcels, including the cost of municipal services, the loss of tax revenue and the resultant decrease in value for properties close to a blighted structure.

The data was intended to inspire meaningful ways to address the issue of vacant and blighted properties. It quantifies the potential to repurpose these sites, which could promote new development, generate new tax revenues and beautify participating municipalities.

Among the three COGs, there are 20,077 vacant lots and 7,158 lots with blighted structures. The economic impact of those properties is more than $19.3 million in direct costs and an estimated loss in property value between $218 million and $247 million, according to the research.

McKeesport and Clairton — third-class cities that have long recognized the social detriment brought on by blight — have been working independently through localized vacant property recovery and redevelopment programs.

“We've always felt that the elimination of blight was part of the foundation of trying to move our city forward,” McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko said. “There are obvious cosmetic reasons, and blight has an attachment to crime.”

McKeesport has dedicated community development funds to demolition projects, including the recent purchase of an excavator in order to perform more demolitions at a lesser cost.

Clairton, which conducted its first delinquent tax sale in 2013, is planning annual auction-style proceedings to get properties back on municipal, school and county tax rolls.

The city also is investing in the removal of blight and improvement of infrastructure with an $800,000 commitment to capital improvements.

“A promising amount of funding was put into the city's capital fund,” Clairton Mayor Rich Lattanzi said. “Citizens should see their tax dollars hard at work through demolition, street repairs and new projects.”

In order to market the city, Lattanzi said, Clairton needs aesthetic improvements and shovel-ready property. That puts the demolition of dilapidated structures at the starting line of a race for redevelopment.

“Redevelopment law gives the county and some of these third-class cities the ability to manage blight,” Steel Valley COG executive director An Lewis said. “The downside to these programs is that they require an end user. Someone must show interest in the property, have a plan and pay.”

While grant monies may be available to subsidize the cost, it may not make a dent in liens and court fees that often add up to thousands of dollars.

A multi-municipal land bank, which would take control of selected parcels for future development, could provide a collective solution for communities to make the most of otherwise useless or detrimental properties, Lewis explained.

“It turns the way of thinking around,” Lewis said. “Instead of having a program that's driven by an end user today, it's a program that's a lot more progressive and can allow properties to move along with a municipality's planning process.”

Land banking strategies exist in various forms in roughly 80 locations across the country. The tool was approved in Pennsylvania in December 2012, allowing municipalities — or a collection of municipalities — with 10,000 or more residents to form a land bank.

The tri-council of governments land bank will be something that the three groups and interested member municipalities must build together, Lewis explained. That includes ideas as well as funding sources.

“It's going to require some investment by municipalities,” Lewis said. “We're not exactly sure where those monies can come from, but the revenue from the real estate alone won't be enough. Some lots will pay for themselves, and some lots won't.”

With their blight study completed, COG representatives are changing their course toward finding a dedicated source of revenue to keep a sustainable land bank. Their goal is to have a business plan drafted by June to lay out a potential budget for the land bank and list scenarios for generating revenue.

“Our mission is to try and figure out a way to build a multi-municipal land bank program that is viable and sustainable,” Lewis said. “None of it is free. Even if you get a donated property and exonerate the taxes, the property has to be maintained and there is a cost associated with that.”

Some municipalities already are advocates for local land banking strategies, because officials there believe the cost of moving property to a land bank is outweighed by the budgetary, community and environmental benefits.

Homestead council president Lloyd Cunningham, who recently toured the borough with Lewis and engineer David Gilliland of Glenn Engineering and Associates, said there is a local interest in “greening” neighborhoods. Homestead has taken advantage of Allegheny County's vacant property recovery program for many years — turning small lots over to adjacent property owners who were willing to purchase and maintain them.

“This is a natural extension of that,” Cunningham said. “We are taking bigger spaces that don't necessarily have neighbors that want to care for them and making green spaces.”

The concept is expected to help with storm water catchment as a supplement to a large bioswale planned for the Waterfront area that will aid in the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority's Act 537 storm water separation mandate.

The Fruit Tree Planting Foundation wants to bring 20 blocks of trees to Homestead that will beautify streets and produce food for the Rainbow Kitchen, which aids homeless and low-income members of the community.

“Land banking could be a good tool to obtain property for green alternatives and solutions to combined sewer problems,” Gilliland said. “Homestead and other communities that I represent, which have expressed an interest in land banking, are part of the ALCOSAN consent agreement.”

The possibilities don't end there, Gilliland said.

In communities such as Dravosburg, officials are excited to learn what land banking could do for their small borough.

Lewis presented a community profile to Dravosburg officials in February. She outlined the direct cost on municipal services, including code enforcement, police services, fire services, public works and demolition specific to Dravosburg. She included the indirect cost, too.

Those figures work out to cover $2,272.83 per household per year. With 892 households in Dravosburg, the grand total is $2,032,712.

“For a small borough like Dravosburg, that's a lot of money,” Lewis said.

She asked council and Mayor Michelle Vezzani to consider vacant lots and abandoned structures not just as nuisances, but to consider what they could become.

“I would hope we could get together as a committee and let the COG know about the properties here,” Councilwoman Barbara Stevenson said. “This is a great idea that could help get rid of blighted properties in town that are bringing down the value of all of our properties.”

Lewis said that vision is different in every community.

“Some of the properties will have their title cleaned and they will go back out almost immediately,” Lewis said. “It could be a side yard. It could be a house that needs minimal work. It could be a house that's in great shape but the family no longer has a use for it.”

COGs, by design, are all about the individual and collective voices of their members. Once established, the tri-COG land bank will be one of the first multi-municipal land banks in the United States that isn't run by county government.

“We hope a regional (land bank) program will also be one in which communities' individual voices are not lost,” Lewis said. “That's the beauty of the COG model, as opposed to a different flavor of a regional model. It's a good place to start.”

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or jvertullo@tribweb.com.