Connellsville council looking at abandoned buildings ordinance
April Colgan of Connellsville walks past the abandoned WCVI Building on East Crawford Avenue in Connellsville. Photo by Celeste Van Kirk | Daily Courier
By Karl Polacek| Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014, 6:00 p.m.
Editor's note: This is the first of a four-part series reviewing some of the properties that concern officials in the City of Connellsville. Today, an ordinance that could address the problem.
Connellsville is more than 200 years old. Many parts of the city are showing age.
Like many neighboring municipalities, Connellsville has buildings that have been left vacant and are turning to rubble from lack of care.
To address the problem, council has been studying a proposed Vacant or Abandoned Structure Registration and Maintenance Code ordinance. After months of discussion and review, council may vote on the ordinance at its Aug. 19 meeting.
“We don't want anymore buildings falling down,” Mayor Greg Lincoln said.
Lincoln and Councilman Aaron Zolbrod campaigned on the issue in the last election. Lincoln is a Democrat. Zolbrod is a Republican.
The new ordinance, as written, would call for the registration of all vacant or abandoned properties.
“The idea is to ensure that vacant properties are safe and not a fire hazard or a hazard to children, other residents or those who have properties in close proximity,” said Zolbrod, the city's director of health and public safety. “It hopefully will encourage those who have been just sitting on those properties and allowing them to decay to do something positive with them. It will also protect the city from doing costly demolitions and help preserve important and historical buildings in town.
“The ultimate goals are not to put pressure on people,” he continued. “The goals, in my opinion, are to, No. 1, ensure the properties pose no health, safety or fire hazard; No. 2, to save as many structures so we don't have a city full of vacant lots; No. 3, to ensure the city doesn't end up bearing the financial responsibility of tearing properties down.”
The ordinance includes an annual fee for the registration. In its current form, the ordinance sets the costs of $30 for single-family dwellings; $50 to $150 for multi-family dwellings; and $100 to $250 for commercial buildings. The registrations would need to be completed by March 1 of each year.
The owners would be required to maintain those structures to the level of the International Property Maintenance Code and the International Fire Code. The buildings would be inspected — internally and externally — by the city code official annually.
The ordinance was to be submitted at the May meeting, but was tabled because of various concerns including those about a requirement to leave the utilities on, interference with the rights of property owners and the possibility of developing a land bank in Fayette County, brought up by Councilman Tom Karpiak.
The ordinance was expected to be reintroduced with “tweaks” at the June meeting, according to Zolbrod. However, it was delayed until the August meeting.
This is not the first time the city has tried to come up with legislation aimed at the problems.
A strict Landlord Registration and Occupancy Ordinance passed council in April 2009, but was repealed in September the same year. That ordinance called for landlords to be responsible for the actions of their tenants or be fined as much as $1,000. The ordinance included a $50 inspection fee and a $10 yearly registration fee.
An ordinance calling for just a $10 annual license fee passed in November 2009.
Neither version of the ordinance had provisions covering vacant or abandoned structures.
Buildings in disrepair
The reasons commercial structures and residences end up in need of work vary.
Structures owned by businesses may be left vacant when those companies cease to exist.
The building at 131-139 E. Crawford Ave., which once housed the WCVI radio station, sat vacant for many years and is now a hazard to city residents, according to council members and fire officials. Some windows are broken and a back wall on a one-story annex is collapsing.
Fayette County owns the building and has been advised by the city that the structure must be demolished soon. The building was back on the county tax claim bureau website, and a bid for the property was received on June 3 from Leighton Simpson of Pompton Lakes, N.J. Simpson has told the Daily Courier he wants to rehabilitate the structure, possibly with storefronts on the first floor and condos on the upper floors.
There are several houses on the city's list of unoccupied structures possibly in need of repair or that should be demolished. Three are awaiting Community Development Block Grant funds for demolition: 1018-1020 Aetna St., 916 Aetna St. and 108-110 Gallatin Ave.
Salvaging historic buildings is not out of the question.
Last year, Charles Matthews, Connellsville's former mayor, and other officials were able to work out a deal with Connellsville native and area businessman Terry “Tuffy” Shallenberger.
Shallenberger purchased the decaying Aaron's building for $1 and was given adjacent property by the city last summer. The deal may have cost the city approximately $25,000 for the adjacent properties, but demolition of the building was expected to exceed $200,000, city officials noted.
The building, constructed as a high-priced furniture store in 1906 by immigrant Isaac Aaron, was saved.
Shallenberger has had his company, Shallenberger Construction Inc., working on the structure. The top two floors were removed and a new roof is in place. His initial plans called for a banquet hall for weddings and large events on the main floor, conference rooms on the second floor, and loft apartments on the third floor. He previously said he may use the fourth floor for storage or for more loft apartments.
Zolbrod said he hears owners of buildings that are vacant or abandoned complaining that the city is picking on them. But he sees the issue differently.
“What if it was you who were living next to a building that is unsafe?” he asked. “What if you had to worry about your kids' safety, about a fire spreading to your home? If anybody has got an alternative to this (ordinance), I'm all ears.”
Other problems facing the city involving the abandoned buildings include the fact that most owners of buildings on the city's watch list have yet to pay their 2013 property taxes. Several unoccupied houses have fallen into disrepair and are on the city's list of those waiting to be demolished or are abandoned and boarded up. They are spread in pockets around the city.
Tuesday: A closer look at structurally deficient buildings.
Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 724-626-3538.
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