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Connellsville weighs options to overcome abandoned-buildings headache

Karl Polacek | Trib Total Media
The house at 256 E. Fairview Ave. in Connellsville has been declared a nuisance. If a land bank system was in effect, it might have helped the owner, Paula Upton. She could have turned the house over to the land bank. Instead, she owes more than $4,400 in back taxes and has no money to fix the structure.

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Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 5:18 p.m.
 

Editor's Note: This is the last of a four-part series on abandoned and vacant buildings in Connellsville. Today, possible solutions to the city's problems.

Connellsville faces a problem of what to do with the abandoned and vacant buildings in the city, which often pose dangers to adjacent properties and to city residents.

The city is studying an ordinance that addresses abandoned or vacant properties. For several months, council has been discussing the ordinance — which could be voted on at its Aug. 19 meeting.

Councilman Aaron Zolbrod said blighted-property issues should have been handled in the past. The city today is fighting blight with only a few resources.

The proposed ordinance would force abandoned and vacant building owners to keep the buildings up to the standards of the International Property Maintenance Code and the International Fire Code. Vacant structures would be inspected once a year to see if they are maintained. They would be registered, with fees based on the type of structure.

The ordinance was expected to be brought before council at the July meeting, but the vote was put off again.

Other possible solutions to the city's property problems are development of a land bank or use of the Blighted and Abandoned Property Conservatorship. Each has advantages and problems.

Land banks

Councilman Tom Karpiak had suggested the city form a land bank. Connellsville can't develop one on its own, however, because the law requires the municipality to have a population of 10,000 or more.

The city's population was 7,583 in 2012.

Connellsville can join other municipalities in a land-bank venture, as long as the combined population exceeds 10,000. So far, Connellsville Township, South Connellsville, Dunbar Borough and the City of Uniontown have expressed an interest.

Land banks allow a group of municipalities to organize under a charter to purchase blighted properties so that some kind of action can be taken. Municipalities involved would have first choice of buying a property through sheriff's sales.

From there, they could tear down or repair the property or choose to sell it to an individual who would demolish or rehabilitate it.

“The land bank should go hand-in-hand with that,” Karpiak said, adding that Connellsville could have property to lease and, therefore, make money.

Fayette County Commission Chairman Al Ambrosini has said the county also is considering to set up a land bank.

Zolbrod said he prefers a small system, which would be more responsive to the small municipalities, but the cost of staffing might be too high.

Westmoreland County started its own land bank in December 2013, said April Kopas, executive director of the land bank and the Westmoreland redevelopment authority.

The Westmoreland land bank started when the county passed an ordinance, Kopas explained.

The ordinance can be found at www.co.westmoreland.pa.us/landbank.

There are 10 municipalities involved — Jeannette, Greensburg, Latrobe, Mt. Pleasant Borough, Mt. Pleasant Township, Scottdale, South Greensburg, Youngwood, West Newton and Sewickley.

The first prerequisite for a Westmoreland municipality to join is financial participation. The community must provide a start-up fee, which is $5,000 in Westmoreland.

When a property is chosen for the land bank in Westmoreland, the municipality must maintain the property and agree to real estate tax-revenue sharing at 50 percent for five years after the property is taxable. The school district also must participate, although not required to kick in financially at the start.

Conservatorships

A conservatorship allows neighbors, nonprofit organizations, municipalities, school districts or redevelopment authorities to ask a judge to appoint a conservator to take charge of the property to stabilize, rehabilitate or demolish the structure. The program would address seriously blighted conditions that the owner has been unwilling or unable to address.

Butler County has been able to occasionally use the law. But the process can take time — up to nine months to implement, according to Michael Edwards, executive director of the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority.

“It would be the city that has to be willing to put the money up front,” said Edwards, regarding a property repair or demolition.

Edwards said there would be no guarantee the city could recover any of the money invested.

Both alternatives have another fault.

The programs require staffs to handle the paperwork, inspections and similar costs. Time is also a problem. A conservatorship requires going before a judge after doing the research about a property. And the establishment of a land bank takes time by providing funding and beginning to assign properties and turn them over.

One last possibility would be for properties to be donated to the municipalities. But the problem would be that municipalities taking over the properties would must handle costs for repairs, maintenance and legal responsibilities as property owners.

No money

Paula Upton, 39, of Dunbar Township, inherited her grandfather's house.

“My grandfather (Kenny King) lived in it,” Upton said. “When he fell ill, I moved in and took care of him.”

King was eventually placed in a care home. Upton lived in the house and paid rent to her aunt(s). When her grandfather died, the house was willed to her.

“The house wasn't in good shape (when King died,)” she said.

Upton said she had friends who were willing to help her restore the house. They began work. But her problem was “just money.”

She said the taxes on the property — some owed by her grandfather before he died — plus citations issued by the city since she inherited the structure, have added to the problems she faces getting money to fix up the home.

According to the Fayette County Tax Assessment Office, Upton owes more than $4,400 in back taxes.

Aland-bank system possibly might help Upton.

One option for her would be to ask the land bank to accept the house —freeing her from the responsibility of having to deal with the problems associated with the property, including the heavy fines she now faces and the liens on the property.

Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kpolacek@tribweb.com or 724-626-3538.

 

 
 


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