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Connellsville council tables buildings ordinance

| Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 12:56 a.m.

After two hours of public comment with some for and some against Connellsville's proposed abandoned and vacant structures ordinance, city council decided to table the matter until next month.

“We've been working on this for two years,” said Councilman Aaron Zolbrod, who thanked residents and business owners who attended the meeting and commented on the ordinance. “We want to make sure it's as right as it can be.”

Council heard multiple opinions about the ordinance, which is to have owners of vacant or abandoned buildings register with the city, open their property for inspection, and maintain the structure inside and out for the health and welfare of the public and for emergency responders who may have to enter the property.

Those in favor of the ordinance cited health and safety concerns as well as addressing blight in the city.

Health code officer Tom Currey, representing the city's health board that drafted the document, urged council to pass the ordinance, noting the city has approximately 60 vacant structures of which they know. Of those 60, Currey doesn't know how many would be considered a public nuisance unless he can inspect the interior.

Resident Daniel Cocks, who represented Fayette County Cultural Trust, said he favors the ordinance. He noted there are 18 blighted buildings in the downtown area alone, which impacts future development.

“If we don't get a handle on these empty buildings, [the problem] will spread,” Cocks said.

Building owner and health board member Susan Lewis, in support of the ordinance, stated blighted buildings will affect tourism.

City Treasurer Judy Keller echoed that sentiment, adding that the second biggest industry in the state is tourism and the Yough bike trail, part of the Great Allegheny Passage, is considered one of the most beautiful places in the world to visit in the fall.

“I would hate to see people come off the bike trail and think they entered a third-world country,” Keller said.

Terry Shallenberger, owner of the historic Aaron's building, which is undergoing renovations to include high-end apartments for those in the natural gas industry, said, “There's progress going on here, but something needs to be done.”

Shallenberger said someone paying $2,000 for an apartment may think twice if they look outside and see plywood over another building's windows.

“If you own a building, you have to keep it up,” Shallenberger said.

Those against the ordinance were concerned about the rights of building owners and the abuse of government power.

“I certainly understand the safety issues,” said building owner Frank Gray, who was concerned about someone making an effort to maintain their building and find themselves facing fines. “But what is the standard? Where do you draw the line?”

Resident Sis Clarke said the last couple of years in the city has become disturbing because council has made property owners the brunt of solving all of the city's problems.

“I feel like we're losing respect with some people,” Clarke said. “When a new ordinance or legislation comes up, the property owners have to pay.”

Connellsville Township Supervisor Robert Carson, a building owner and a representative of the Connellsville Property Owners' Association, said he looked over the ordinance and had concerns about loss of property owner's rights when it comes to the city entering a property for inspections.

Carson added there are enough laws and ordinances that currently exist to address the problems the city is having.

Dr. Paul Dascani said he's not in favor of the ordinance mainly because of the city's elderly who develop health problems and cannot address the issues of their properties.

“What happens to them when they're in a personal care facility?” Dascani said. “I don't see that addressed here.”

Zolbrod said anyone who's making an honest effort to maintain their buildings will get a waiver until the problems are fixed.

The options on the books to fight blighted properties have not worked because there are owners who play the game and go around the system, he said, noting the annual penalties are just for building owners that have abandoned or vacant properties, not for every building owner.

“We're not trying to punish people for owning properties,” Zolbrod said.

Zolbrod said many had legitimate concerns. He also had a new concern that mirrored Dascani with the elderly population.

“I know there are some that are disappointed,” Zolbrod said, adding that they will isolate those concerns in the ordinance and reintroduce it for the regular August meeting. “This is not going away.”

Mark Hofmann is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-626-3539 or mhofmann@tribweb.com.

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