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Westmoreland commissioners poised to create land bank

| Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Westmoreland County commissioners are poised to approve creation of a government agency that will purchase and rehabilitate blighted properties.

Officials on Tuesday said they will vote this week on an ordinance that authorizes the formation of a countywide land bank designed to return real estate to the tax rolls.

“It's an opportunity to address blight and repositioning blighted or tax-delinquent properties to get them under control with a goal of redeveloping them,” Commissioner Ted Kopas said.

The ordinance, slated for a vote on Thursday, would designate the five members of the county's redevelopment authority board as the land bank's board of directors.

The redevelopment authority does not purchase property. Its primary focus is to oversee demolition of blighted structures and assist municipalities in redevelopment efforts, Kopas said.

Commissioners said the land bank will purchase and negotiate sales as well as assist in rehabilitating properties to make them more attractive to buyers.

The concept is to assist cities and other municipalities where there are large numbers of unusable properties, according to the commissioners.

The ordinance stipulates that the land bank will consider retail, commercial and industrial uses for properties as its first priority. Affordable housing, public spaces and conservation areas also will be considered for future uses of properties.

“Our goal is to get properties that are sitting fallow and put them to work,” Commissioner Charles Anderson said.

Commissioner Tyler Courtney said the land bank would augment a program through which tax-delinquent properties that have little or no value are placed in a repository of unsold land. The more than 500 properties now in the repository will be eligible for purchase by the land bank, commissioners said.

Privately owned, blighted properties that could be made attractive to buyers will be targeted for purchase by the land bank.

April Kopas, executive director of the redevelopment authority, said municipalities that participate in the program will be asked to donate $5,000 for the land bank's start-up costs. The authority has agreed to loan the agency $50,000 to provide its initial capital to make purchases.

The bank could generate its own funding by collecting half of all real estate taxes assessed on properties its sells for five years, according to Kopas.

Courtney said the land bank concept has been used in larger cities around the country. Legislation authorizing the creation of land banks in Pennsylvania was approved last year by the state Legislature.

“The goal is to truly set up a way, find a solution, to assist areas of blight,” Courtney said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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