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Connellsville's blighted property ordinance overcomes first hurdle

| Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, 11:57 p.m.
Celeste Van Kirk | Trib Total Media
Protesters picket outside Connellsville City Hall prior to the Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014 city council meeting where council was slated to vote on an ordinance concerning abandoned and vacant structures. Robert Guynn (left) carries a sign. Marvin Nicholson (far right) of Connellsville also protests.
Celeste Van Kirk | Trib Total Media
Sara Shipley (right) and Michaela Halushak with her daughter Amy and son Jessie, all of Connellsville, join some protestors outside of Connellsville City Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014 prior to the Connellsville City Council meeting where council was expected to vote on an ordinance pertaining to abandoned and vacant structures.
Celeste Van Kirk | Trib Total Media
Local businessman Peter Jandura speaks to Connellsville City Council Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014 prior to council taking a vote on the ordinance involving abandoned and vacant structures.

In a 4-1 vote on Tuesday, Connellsville City Council agreed to pass the first reading of an abandoned property and vacant structure ordinance — with some concerns.

The ordinance requires owners of vacant or abandoned buildings to register with the city, open their properties for inspection and maintain the structures inside and out for the health and welfare of the public and for emergency responders who may have to enter the properties.

As with July's regular meeting when the ordinance was tabled for a second time, there were about two hours of public comment with those for and against the ordinance.

Business owner Peter Jandura said he went through 12 years and three city administrations being told the city was going to help with the blighted, vacant and structurally deficient structures next to his building.

“They told me, ‘We're going to help you,' ” Jandura said. “Today is the day to do that.”

Jandura said landlords on council, including Tom Karpiak and Brad Geyer, should abstain from voting on the issue because it could be construed as a conflict of interest.

Councilman Gregory Ritch responded, saying it was “ludicrous” for them not to vote. He said as elected representatives to the city, they have the right to cast a vote.

Bob Watson, who would only identify himself as a resident of Fayette County, said he remembered the days in Connellsville where the trolleys went up and down the street and the city was booming.

“And then it went bust,” Watson said, adding that the city's main street should be something to showcase and not have windows broken or boarded up. “It took over 65 years to put us where we're at. It's going to take time to go forward.”

Howard Mitchell, a retired police officer, told council that codes are made to protect people, but council should not overstep its boundaries.

David McIntire, a former Connellsville councilman, said the vote reminded him of when the council chamber was filled with people when a previous council voted on the landlord ordinance.

“So many people want Connellsville to be a better place to live that we should pass the ordinance,” he said.

“What is the standard?” asked Frank Gray of Connellsville, who said he has been working on his building to try to bring it up to code. “What point do you meet the standard?”

Connellsville City Treasurer Judy Keller said the owners of blighted structures who might live out of town may not be concerned with the appearance of the town as those who live in the area.

She said the ordinance is to promote safety.

“Some say that this proposed ordinance is a violation of their personal rights,” Keller said, presenting council with a petition with more than 200 signatures in support of the ordinance. “When you are required to get your motor vehicle inspected each year in the interest of public safety, I'm sure the state of Pa. is not interested in hearing about how your personal rights are being violated.”

“We want to work with you hand in hand to end blight,” said Robert Carson of Connellsville Township and a representative of the Connellsville Property Owners Association.

Carson said the association has issues with the residential properties being affected and internal inspections if no violations appear on the outside; he added if anyone feels they've had their property rights violated, they should call 724-603-5006.

Councilman Aaron Zolbrod said if anyone feels like they're rights have been violated or if they feel harassed by the city, they should talk to him to address those issues.

Zolbrod made a motion on the vote, but before doing so, said there's never going to be a perfect ordinance and some valid points were made during the public comment period.

He said changes were made to the ordinance, including doubling the amount of time to register structures and a provision to address an elderly person's situation if they have to go into a personal care facility. Zolbrod said it's easy to get an exception from the health board. Also, there is the ability for the city to re-visit the ordinance in five years to make any necessary changes.

“If this was a violation of property rights, I wouldn't have introduced it,” Zolbrod said. “I don't see it as a fight against landlords.”

Geyer seconded the motion but said he still has concerns about the interior inspections for residential properties.

“It's the first read, so I'm okay with moving this forward to continue the discussion,” Geyer said, adding that he would like to see a trigger clause put into the ordinance so the city will have a reason to perform an internal inspection on the property if there's a problem outside the property.

Zolbrod said he is not in favor of a trigger clause.

Karpiak said he has been easily vilified because he owns properties in the city, but he still considers the ordinance “a classic overreach” of government power.

“Nobody wants to get blight out of this town more than someone who has invested in this town like me,” Karpiak said, adding that the city needs a customized ordinance to end blight, but he believes the ordinance targets all property owners.

Karpiak said he believes a land bank should be introduced in the city as a way for property owners to get out of a property too expensive to repair.

Like Geyer, Ritch said he has concerns about the ordinance but will support it because he respects the valid points that were made during the meeting.

Karpiak was the only dissenting vote.

The ordinance will sit for a 30-day review period, and council will take a vote for adoption in September.

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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