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North Huntingdon commissioners express concerns about land bank program

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 7:03 p.m.

North Huntingdon commissioners never officially voted to reject an offer to participate in a land-bank program being developed by Westmoreland County that is designed to place abandoned, tax-delinquent properties back on the tax rolls.

But officials have made it clear that they are loathe to join the land bank unless concerns about the agreement that outlines the rules for participating are addressed.

“While I agree with the land bank in theory, some of the details of the agreement concern me,” township manager John Shepherd said. “Hopefully, we can agree upon some changes which will increase the comfort level of the township to be a participant.”

To that end, the township manager and solicitor have added caveats to the Intergovernmental Cooperation Agreement and Memorandum of Understanding to protect the municipality's interests.

The land-bank program is administered by the Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority, which would take the lead in acquiring blighted residential and commercial properties in the township so they can be rehabilitated and sold, demolished or redeveloped for other uses.

In addition to paying $5,000 to participate in the program, municipal officials must 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 after it is returned to the tax rolls.

One of the changes requested by township officials would require the land bank to get their approval before buying any property with a value of $100,000 or more. The current agreement states only that “consultation with the municipality” occur before land is purchased.

Another change requested a focus on a concern of municipal officials that the township will be obligated to perform maintenance such as site cleanup and grass cutting on properties acquired by the land bank. The change states that the municipality “will assist” the land bank with maintenance.

A third change deals with a requirement that township officials agree to inspect properties obtained by the land bank and provide a written notification when the properties are in compliance with municipal codes. The revisions offered by the township state:

“It is understood that the municipality is not obligated to uncover every possible code violation by means of routine inspection. The land bank shall not utilize the municipal inspection to warrant the property to the potential owners or lessees.”

A final revision deals with the land bank's immunity from being cited for code violations on properties it owns in the township. The change notes that the land bank “may” be cited for violations and adds that the municipality “shall assist, where feasible, the land bank with any significant code rule regulation.”

At commissioners meeting when land bank proposal was discussed, officials repeatedly complained that the agreement lacked protection for the municipalities that are participate.

Shepherd said the changes made to the agreement are an attempt to address those concerns.

“I think that the township's proposed changes are important to protect the township from potential liability as well as insuring that demands on (our) staff are not excessive,” he said.

April Kopas, the executive director of the land-bank program, said the changes requested by North Huntingdon officials have been “passed on” to the program's seven member board of directors for consideration, but it has not taken any action.

Kopas did not know when — or if — the board would vote on whether to accept the changes.

“At this point our focus is on trying to get at least two (land-bank) projects completed in each of the (seven) participating communities,” she said.

If the land bank's board agrees to include any of the changes North Huntingdon has requested in the agreement, officials in the other participating communities — Mt. Pleasant, Jeannette, Youngwood, Sewickley, West Newton, Latrobe and Greensburg — would have to vote to accept the changes, Kopas said.

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

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