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Westmoreland land bank provides tool for fighting blight

| Wednesday, June 11, 2014, 12:01 a.m.
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Pictured is a building in downtown West Newton that has been turned over to the county tax claim bureau for non payment of taxes. West Newton recently joined the Westmoreland County Land Bank, which will purchase unwanted properties in its partner communities, usually vacant homes or businesses that have been foreclosed or abandoned.
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Downtown West Newton shows a mix of successful businesses and a closed storefront. The community recently joined the Westmoreland County Land Bank, which will purchase unwanted properties in its partner communities, usually vacant homes or businesses that have been foreclosed or abandoned.

When West Newton Mayor Mary Popovich bought her home, the property next to her residence was in sheriff's sale status.

“Luckily, I was able to purchase it at sheriff's sale,” Popovich said. “I was able to clean it up and make it a green space with flowers and trees.”

West Newton is one of 10 municipalities that have joined the Westmoreland County Land Bank, enough for the fledgling initiative to begin buying blighted properties.

The land bank will purchase unwanted properties in its partner communities, usually vacant homes or businesses that have been foreclosed or abandoned. It will improve properties by renovating or demolishing the blighted buildings, then sell them, putting them back on tax rolls.

“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, which is leading the project.

Partner communities are required to pay $5,000 to the county to offset costs related to property acquisition. All of the school districts that serve those communities must agree to participate since half of the real estate taxes will be shared with the land bank for five years after properties once again generate tax revenue.

Land bank officials are trying to identify priority projects. They plan to purchase one or two properties in each member community by late fall, Kopas said.

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

Popovich said properties must be up for tax to be eligible to be purchased by the land bank.

“If you have a property up for (sale for) taxes, the borough is not reaping the benefits and it's also devaluing surrounding properties,” Popovich said.

“When you use the land bank, neighbors may want to purchase it. You can turn over some property that is habitable and collect taxes.

“To me, blight is taking over a lot of small towns that were beautiful and something has to be done.”

Popovich said the borough may work with Downtown West Newton Inc. to identify potential buyers for properties, especially in the downtown business district, as a part of DWNI's vision for the community.

Downtown West Newton Inc. is a non-profit, community development corporation. DWNI has developed a strategy for enhancing the downtown, which includes supporting existing businesses and attracting new businesses.

“As mayor, I just want to see blighted properties overturned, made habitable or made green spaces,” Popovich said. “Residents don't want their properties devalued.”

Pam Humenik, West Newton borough secretary/treasurer, said she is “a big blight fighter.”

“It's almost like a no-win situation because you have these properties abandoned,” Humenik said.

She read about land banks in other states. Westmoreland County is only second in the state along with Dauphin County to form a land bank.

Humenik has attended meetings involving the formation of the land bank on behalf of the borough. She said other Westmoreland County communities are waiting to see how it works out. “I'm very proud of my council that they had the initiative to jump into this program,” Humenik said.

“I'm proud to be Westmoreland County; I'm proud to be West Newton.”

West Newton joined the land bank in April. The Yough School District joined last month.

Yough School Superintendent Janet M. Sardon said the land bank might bring a slight improvement to the the tax base but a more significant value for the community of West Newton.

“The real goal is to create opportunity for properties to help environment within the community, to rid the community of blight,” Sardon said. “Our biggest goal is helping communities to enhance themselves.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or cbuckley@tribweb.com.

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