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West Newton may join county land bank

| Monday, March 3, 2014, 10:48 p.m.

West Newton could get rid of some dilapidated and blighted buildings, and return those properties to the tax rolls by joining Westmoreland County's new land bank program, a county official told borough council on Monday.

“It's a problem in all of our towns. Unfortunately, we all live beside one or drive by one,” April Kopas, executive director of the county's redevelopment authority, told council during its workshop meeting.

West Newton has a chance to remedy some of the blighted, tax-delinquent properties in the town by becoming one of about 10 municipalities that would be part of the initial communities to participate in the land bank. Kopas said she has worked with Pamela Humenik, borough secretary, and has identified potential targets for the program.

Council President George Molovich said he was in favor of the idea. Council may consider bringing the issue of West Newton joining the land bank to a vote at its March 10 meeting, but that depends on a consultation with Charles Wade, the borough's solicitor.

Under the land bank program, blighted properties owned by people delinquent on their taxes could be acquired, then sold or demolished and the land resold, Kopas said. In some cases, a municipality would leave a site clear to create green space, Kopas said.

Kopas said she hopes to launch the program in the spring and is looking to get approvals from municipalities this month.

The easiest way for the land bank to acquire properties would be through a judicial sale, whereby the program would acquire the parcel when back taxes and liens are cleared, Kopas said. Buying the properties at a sheriff's sale would be more costly because of the likelihood that liens would be placed against the properties, in addition to the back taxes, Kopas said.

The redevelopment authority has invested $50,000 as seed money to start the program. Any municipality that joins the program would invest $5,000. That money would help cover the cost of legal fees and environmental remediation at the site, Kopas said.

To make the program work, a municipality must agree to give the program half of any property tax realized by the property sold through the land bank for five years. The county has agreed to that stipulation and the third taxing body, the school district, must do the same, Kopas said. That money would restock the program to acquire more properties, she said.

Kopas said she plans to talk on Thursday to Sewickley Township supervisors about joining the program. After those discussions, Kopas said she will approach the Yough School Board to present the program to the school directors.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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