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Land bank benefits Westmoreland

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By Rachel Basinger
Saturday, April 26, 2014, 1:06 a.m.

Westmoreland County has formed just the third land bank in the state.

According to the director of the Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority, the program is a significant tool in battling blight.

Land banks allow a group of municipalities to organize under a charter to purchase blighted properties so that some type of action can be taken on them.

The program was established in Westmoreland in December when county commissioners passed an ordinance in its support, said April Kopas, executive director of the Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority, who was on hand this week to discuss land banks with local municipal leaders during the G-11 Conference at the Laurelville Mennonite Conference Center.

Representatives from 11 communities, including Connellsville, are meeting through today to discuss a variety of issues affecting municipalities in Fayette and Westmoreland counties.

“The state made a resolution recently that would allow government entities to set up land banks,” she said. “This is the first significant tool available to municipalities to battle blight.”

As part of the land bank program, municipalities involved have a choice of buying a property through a county sheriff's sale.

From there, it must be determined if the blighted structure should be torn down, repaired or resold to someone who may be interested in its rehabilitation.

Officials in several communities in Westmoreland County believe the program has benefits.

Mt. Pleasant Borough Manager Jeff Landy said several months ago when the borough opted to seek acceptance into the program that it could help the borough tremendously.

“This is going to be a tremendous help to us, because right now we don't have any power to solve some of these problems on our own,” Landy said at the time.

Kopas said the state has offered no funding for the land bank, so those in the program are working out ways to fund it.

Any municipality that wishes to join will have to put $5,000 into the land bank. Once the land bank begins to purchase properties, it will retain any profit made in the resale.

Another stipulation is that for five years after the property makes it back on the tax rolls, 50 percent of the taxes will go into the land bank.

With this stipulation, all the taxing bodies would have to be in agreement.

Kopas said originally it was hoped six to 10 municipalities would be interested in participating. Seven have signed up. These include Mt. Pleasant, West Newton and Youngwood boroughs, Sewickley Township and the cities of Jeannette, Greensburg and Latrobe.

“The window to join in this initial phase is closing,” Kopas said. “We're anxious to move into project mode.”

Scottdale Borough Council President Bud Santimyer said the borough is hoping to fill one of the final spots if the majority of council votes in favor of joining the land bank.

Kopas said once 10 municipalities sign up, probably within the next month, project working lists will start to be developed and properties will start to be acquired.

Youngwood Councilman Scott Palmquist said there is no way a small municipality has the money or resources to tackle the blight issue on its own.

“Through the land bank we can work with other municipalities and hopefully have an easier time getting grant money from the state as a group of municipalities, rather than one municipality on its own,” he said.

Connellsville City Councilman Brad Geyer said he is fairly certain that Connellsville is interested in growing the idea of a land bank.

“We don't have the population ourselves to do this alone, but we'll talk with the county and see if they're ready to spearhead a land bank,” Geyer said. “If not, then we'll have to take steps to see how best to make this happen.”

Rachel Basinger is a contributing writer.

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