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3 Councils of Governments release plan for land bank deal

| Thursday, July 17, 2014, 4:01 a.m.
Courtesy Tri-COG Collaborative
While there are numerous areas with blight in Allegheny County, the map shows many can be found within Pittsburgh city limits and in the areas covered by the Tri-COG Collaborative, including the Twin Rivers, Steel Valley and Turtle Creek Valley councils of governments.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Clairton intern Joshua Cross and Manager Howard Bednar discuss blighted properties in their city with Steel Valley Council of Governments executive director An Lewis and her Twin Rivers Council of Governments counterpart John Palyo. The Steel Valley, Twin Rivers and Turtle Creek Valley COGs released a business plan Wednesday for a land bank that would serve 40 member municipalities but could be extended to 85 other Allegheny County municipalities also involved in COGs.

Three councils of governments released a plan on Wednesday for a land bank to deal with vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties.

The aim of the Tri-COG Collaborative of Twin Rivers, Steel Valley and Turtle Creek Valley councils is to return those properties to productive use in 40 municipalities from Forward Township to Plum.

Those COGs want to use a December 2012 state law that allows municipalities or groups of municipalities with 10,000 or more residents to form a land bank.

“The old way of doing things isn't getting the job done,” said state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, who joined his colleagues in passing that law.

“A land bank will give our communities power to spur growth and attract new residents,” said Turtle Creek Valley COG executive director Amanda Settelmaier.

The collaborative said the land bank will have a $536,000 annual budget, which is “less than the annual cost of blight in a single average municipality” in Eastern Allegheny County.

The three COGs found 20,077 vacant lots and 7,158 lots with blighted structures in the 40 municipalities, with an economic impact more than $19.3 million in direct costs and an estimated loss in property value between $218 million and $247 million.

“In its first year,” according to an executive summary, “the land bank revenue stream will be comprised of an estimated $228,000 in sales and $14,700 in tax recapture.”

That summary goes on to propose “that the member municipalities, school districts and Allegheny County allocate a portion of their delinquent real estate tax collections to the land bank,” for a $200,000 cushion.

“This strategy of dealing with blight and abandonment transcends political boundaries,” said Twin Rivers COG executive director John Palyo.

The land bank would be governed by a board with two representatives named by member municipalities, two by school boards in affected areas, one by Allegheny County's executive and four selected by the others “based on their expertise and state-designed requirements.”

The plan includes a pledge to “follow respective municipal plans and priorities” in ways the land bank will acquire properties.

“It's a regional solution to a regional problem,” county Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in his endorsement of the plan.

With release of the plan, which can be found on a www.scribd.com website, the next step is to put together needed ordinances, intergovernmental cooperation agreements, policies and procedures for the land bank.

“We want to bring new development and new residents to Allegheny County, to places like McKeesport, Monroeville and Clairton,” Fitzgerald said. “Right now the process to clear the title and tax debt on abandoned, vacant, tax delinquent properties takes so long that developers walk away.”

In Clairton, officials said that strategy could have been put to use two years ago, when two groups sought to put a grocery store in a city considered a “food desert” by the United States Department of Agriculture.

While Sierra Development LLC sought to bring a Save-A-Lot to the former Blair Heights housing development along Maple Avenue, Paramount Development sought 13 properties up the hill in Clairton's main business district for a Bottom Dollar market.

“The back of the store would have been on Waddell Avenue, with a parking lot on St. Clair Avenue,” Clairton city manager Howard Bednar said.

“If you can bring in one single business, that can be enough to flip an entire street,” Steel Valley COG executive director An Lewis said.

At the time it was reported that three property owners did not want to sell to Bottom Dollar. Bednar said more than half of the property owners could not be found — in some cases because they were deceased.

Bottom Dollar eventually pulled out of its plans for Clairton.

“For developers, time is a very important factor,” Lewis said. “They don't want to wait two years for properties to find their way into control.”

In the same block along St. Clair as what would have been Bottom Dollar is what used to be the PNC Bank branch.

“Would they have stayed if we had a supermarket?” Bednar wondered. “Who knows?”

The Save-A-Lot plan eventually folded as well. Bednar said the city is back to square one in its search for a supermarket.

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