Fayette County communities proceed with proposed land bank to fight blight

| Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014, 1:06 a.m.

Officials from several of the communities meeting to discuss blight in Fayette County met again on Tuesday evening in Connellsville City Hall to lay out plans they deem necessary to form a land bank.

Only Connellsville, South Connellsville and Uniontown were represented, but mood was positive.

“I can say this has been developing good,” said Connellsville Councilman Aaron Zolbrod. “We're all after the same goal, and we're lucky to have Andrew French (of the Redevelopment Authority of Fayette County) here.”

“The whole optimism thing, this is refreshing,” said Connellsville Councilman Thomas Karpiak. “We have a common goal, and we're all pushing for it.”

Discussions focused on how to approach the problem of abandoned properties and how to find the funding for starting a land bank.

Zolbrod, reviewing an issue brought up during the July meeting, asked whether Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds could be used to provide seed money for a land bank.

Mark Rafail, executive director of the Uniontown Redevelopment Authority, said there are problems with CDBG funds.

“The issue is CDBG funds can only be used in a designated area for the designated properties,” said Rafail. “We can't say we're going to take that money and put it into a land bank. I can't give it to anybody else (to be used in another municipality.)”

South Connellsville Councilman Clyde Martz said he attended a meeting with Westmoreland County representatives, who are in the process of setting up a land bank by using CDGB funds.

French said such funding can be used toward acquisition and demolition of blighted properties. And the funds can be used for county projects.

The Fayette County group decided that each community should develop a list of properties.

Tom Currey, code-enforcement officer and health officer for Connellsville, said he already has a list of many properties that need attention that he could prioritize.

For other communities, such as South Connellsville, the list might be smaller.

French said he could use the lists to help develop a land bank.

Rafail said he could take such a “white paper” to his council to seek funds for Uniontown's share of start-up costs.

French and Rafail said a seminar might be conducted in Somerset County in October, possibly aided by the Somerset Trust. Representatives were invited from Somerset, Fayette and possibly Westmoreland counties. The seminar will feature a retired official from eastern Pennsylvania who now works as a consultant.

The purpose of the seminar is to familiarize municipal officials with what options are available, such as the way to develop a land bank and what funding paths and grants might be available.

The proposed seminar could solve another problem — how to learn whether other Fayette municipalities are interested in joining in a land bank.

Antoinette Tesauro, city clerk for Connellsville, was asked whether she would send notices to other municipalities.

Zolbrod asked those in attendance if it would be necessary for each municipality to budget in their 2015 spending plans a start-up amount for a land bank.

Rafail and Martz said they believed an amount could be placed in a municipal budget, then moved into another account if the land bank were not started next year.

The next meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 30 in Connellsville City Hall.

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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