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Land bank considered in Washington County

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 1:06 a.m.
Jim Ference | The Valley Independent
These addresses 807,811 and 811 1/2 on Sixth Street in Charleroi are to be scheduled for demolition soon. Tuesday, July 22, 2014.
Jim Ference | The Valley Independent
This letter from Charleroi's code enforcement officer states that the houses at 811 and 811 1\2 on Sixth Street in Charleroi will soon be demolished. Tuesday, July 22, 2014.

One property on Charleroi's demolition list is owned by a man from Irvine, Calif. who told borough officials it is “too cold” in Charleroi for him to come and make improvements needed to bring it up to code.

Another is owned by a woman from India.

Such are the challenges that municipal officials face when trying to battle blighted properties.

But Washington County officials are considering a new tool for getting control of such properties – creation of a county-wide land bank.

Under a land bank, participating communities pay a fee that is used to create a bank used for acquiring properties.

Westmoreland County recently formed a county-wide land bank. 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. Greensburg, Jeannette, Latrobe, Mt. Pleasant Borough, Mt. Pleasant Township, Scottdale, Sewickley Township, South Greensburg, West Newton and Youngwood have signed on to participate.

Earlier this month, Washington County Planning Director Lisa Cessna hosted a meeting with officials from Charleroi, Monongahela, East Bethlehem and the city of Washington for preliminary discussions on a proposed county-wide land bank.

“We're early in the process,” Cessna said. “We're getting an education on what's involved.”

Cessna said the county commissioners have expressed an interest in seeing a land bank formed and want more information.

“My staff and the redevelopment staff are working on a package of what would be involved,” Cessna said. “The municipalities are interested in looking at all options available to them. They're interested in working cooperatively with a joint vision and plan.”

Cessna said if a land bank is approved, it could take effect as early as late this year.

“We would start with a few municipalities and grow from there,” Cessna said.

Cessna said the city of Washington had been considering forming its own land bank. Monongahela and Charleroi officials had contacted the county about the idea.

“The next step is we need to brief the commissioners as to what we've been doing since initially telling them what a land bank is and asking them if they are interested,” Cessna said.

Monongahela Councilman Ken Kulak also sits on the county planning commission. Kulak said he favors the county-wide land bank.

Kulak said Monongahela's issue is with spot blight – a decrepit home located in an otherwise glowing neighborhood. A land bank is a better tool for communities that have several blighted properties within one neighborhood, all in a row, Kulak said.

Charleroi Borough Manager Donn Henderson said his community has suggested a county-wide land bank. Henderson, who attended the recent session hosted by the county, welcomes the participation of our neighboring communities.

Henderson said the land bank would permit Charleroi to get better control over repeat offenders.

Henderson said many blighted properties are owned by people who buy them online, never having visited Charleroi.

One popular scam involves people selling blighted houses online, showing the prospective buyer a photo of a nicer piece of property.

“Our ultimate goal is to have more people here who own their own homes,” Henderson said.

“We want to break the cycle of sheriff's sale where someone buys it, flips it and we have to search out the new owner.”

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