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Mt. Pleasant studies program toward eliminating blight

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By Rachel Basinger
Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, 4:39 p.m.
 

Westmoreland County has formed just the third land bank in the state and Mt. Pleasant Borough officials have high hopes to join in the program that will finally allow them to take positive steps toward eliminating blight.

Jeff Landy, Mt. Pleasant borough manager and April Kopas, executive director of the county's redevelopment authority, approached the Mt. Pleasant Area School Board recently to discuss the benefits of joining the land bank program.

Kopas said the county created the countywide land bank by ordinance in December.

“The state made a resolution recently that would allow government entities to set up land banks,” she said. “This is the first significant tool available to municipalities to battle blight.”

Landy said 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 on them.

“These blighted properties become a nuisance because they just sit there and nothing is ever done with them,” he said. “When they go up for sheriff's sale, most of the time someone buys them just to resell in hopes of making a few dollars, but nothing ever really gets done with them.”

As part of the land bank program, municipalities involved would have first choice of buying a property through a sheriff's sale.

From there, the land bank program could tear down or fix up the property or choose to sell it to an individual that would.

“This is going to be a tremendous help to us because right now we don't have any power to solve some of these problems on our own,” Landy said. “This is the first good, new and exciting answer for municipalities on the blighted property issue.”

Kopas said that the state has offered no funding for the land bank, so ways are being worked out to fund the program.

At this point, any municipality in the state that wishes to join the land bank will have to put $5,000 into the land bank. Also, once the land bank begins to purchase properties, it will retain any profit made in the resale

Another stipulation, and the reason for the visit to the Mt. Pleasant School Board, is that for five years after the property makes it back on the tax roles, 50 percent of the taxes will go into the land bank.

With this stipulation, all of the taxing bodies would have to be in agreement, including the county, the municipality and the school district that the municipality is in.

Kopas said six to 10 municipalities are needed to participate in the land bank for this initial phase.

“We're trying to formalize who those communities are right now, but we would like to see a mix of boroughs, cities and even large townships,” she said. “We would love, in the end, for all 65 of the municipalities to participate.”

Robert Gumbita, Mt. Pleasant Area School Board president, said it seems like a great idea, since right now the district is not getting any tax revenues on these properties that have been delinquent for years.

“When you take and improve these properties, it increases the value and that will come back to us in increased taxes,” he said. “We're really glad someone is finally doing something about these blighted properties.”

Landy said the borough has already committed the $5,000 to join the land bank and the school district's board of directors will more than likely be asked to take action on the issue at its March board meeting.

Rachel Basinger is a contributing writer.

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