North Huntingdon considers land-bank program

| Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

North Huntingdon officials are mulling an offer to participate in a new Westmoreland County program designed to put abandoned, tax-delinquent properties back on the tax rolls.

But several commissioners are not yet sold on it.

Commissioners are expected to vote next week on whether to join a land-bank program administered by the Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority that will take the lead in acquiring blighted residential and commercial properties so they can be rehabilitated and sold, demolished or redeveloped for other uses.

A vote on participating in the land bank was taken off the agenda for the March 19 commissioners meeting so officials could further study the proposal.

April Kopas, executive director of the land bank, said one of the benefits of participating is the availability of resources and expertise to which municipal officials might not have access otherwise.

“The land bank is a tool that allows municipalities and the county to work collectively to deal with blight in their communities,” Kopas said. “By participating, municipalities will be better poised to address some of the issues these issues.”

Kopas said while the land bank serves as “the voice” when working to acquire blighted properties, local officials remain engaged during the process.

“The plan is to work with community leaders to identify properties and investigate whether it makes sense to acquire them,” she said. “Once that happens, we'll use all the resources available to us to add the property to the land bank.”

The resources available include the county's tax-claim bureau, planning and legal departments, as well as connections with banks, real estate agencies and developers, Kopas said.

So far, officials in Mt. Pleasant borough, Youngwood, Sewickley Township, West Newton and Latrobe have voted to join the program, said Kopas, adding that the goal is to have 10 municipalities participate in the first year.

The program calls for participating municipalities to pay a $5,000 fee and agree to give up half of the revenue from real-estate taxes collected from any property sold through the land bank for the first five years it is on the tax rolls, Kopas said.

In addition to the $5,000, the redevelopment authority has committed $50,000 in start-up funds, Kopas said. Federal and state grants also will be sought to help pay for building rehabilitation or demolition.

Richard Gray, chairman of the North Huntingdon commissioners, said while the program could benefit some communities, he questions whether North Huntingdon is among them.

“The land bank sounds like a really great idea for communities that need it because they don't have enough staff, a lot of properties that need to be addressed or both,” Gray said. “But I don't think we fit the bill. We've had a couple of blighted or vacant properties, but it's not a large-scale problem for us.”

Gray said whenever the municipality receives complaints about a vacant property that is not being properly maintained, action is taken address the problem.

“We put the owners on notice that they are responsible for correcting problems with their properties and then give them the opportunity to do it,” Gray said. “If they don't respond, we send a crew out to do what's necessary and then place a lien on the property for the work we've done.

“If the land bank acquires the property, I believe we would still have to do the work to correct problems, but we wouldn't recoup our costs and would have to give up five years of taxes after it's sold.”

Commissioner Tom Krause said he, too, wonders about whether North Huntingdon needs the program.

“I've read through the proposal, and it sounds good, but at this point I'm skeptical about whether it's worth doing in North Huntingdon,” he said. “Blighted or abandoned properties are not a big issue here. But I'm keeping and open mind as we continue to study and discuss this.”

Commissioner Zachary Haigis said he does not plan to vote to join the land bank.

“I really don't see how it will benefit North Huntingdon,” he said. “We don't have many properties that I would consider blighted, so how do I justify spending money to participate in a program that might never involve a property in our township?”

Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626.

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