Westmoreland land bank ready to go to work
Ten municipalities have joined the Westmoreland County Land Bank, enough for the fledgling initiative to begin buying blighted properties.
The land bank will purchase unwanted properties in its partner communities, usually vacant homes or businesses that have been foreclosed or abandoned. It will improve properties by renovating or demolishing the blighted buildings on them, then sell them to a new owner, putting them back on tax rolls.
“It's a great revitalization tool. You can finally steer redevelopment and help these communities tackle the blight,” said April Kopas, executive director of both the land bank and the Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority, which is leading the project.
Partner communities are required to pay $5,000 to the county to offset costs related to property acquisition. All of the school districts that serve those communities must agree to participate since half of the real estate taxes will be shared with the land bank for five years, once properties return to the tax rolls.
Land bank officials are trying to identify priority projects. They plan to purchase one or two properties in each member community by late fall, Kopas said.
Jeannette, Greensburg, Latrobe, Mt. Pleasant Borough, Mt. Pleasant Township, Scottdale, South Greensburg, Youngwood, West Newton and Sewickley Township have signed on to participate.
“This is going to be such a positive thing for the township, because we're going to be able to get a couple of things torn down,” said Jack Rutkowski, chairman of the Mt. Pleasant Township board of supervisors.
Rutkowski said the redevelopment authority has the expertise needed to cut through red tape and acquire properties the township would have difficulty buying.
In addition to foreclosed properties, he said, he hopes the land bank can help take over older, vacant homes of residents who have died.
In many cases, neighbors would be willing to buy the property if the home is demolished, he said.
Kopas noted that the properties can be used by neighbors as side yards, for new housing or for public projects, such as parks, community facilities or stormwater control areas.
Rosemarie M. Wolford, mayor of Latrobe, agreed that the expertise at the land bank will make community renovation easier.
“They're really experts at this kind of thing,” she said.
Latrobe does not have a large number of foreclosed properties, but there are enough to keep the land bank busy, she said.
“We don't have a lot, but a municipality of our age and our size, obviously we have some trouble-spot areas,” she said, declining to mention specific properties until the land bank's early planning is more developed.
Not everyone is so willing to jump onboard.
North Huntingdon took a wait-and-see approach to the initiative.
“We thought it made more sense to be careful with it,” said township manager John Shepherd.
North Huntingdon commissioners worried about the need to maintain properties owned by the land bank for extended periods of time. They also were concerned that an agreement would leave them unable to cite properties owned by a bank for code violations, such as high grass.
While North Huntingdon has some properties that could benefit from renovation, the township is not in urgent need of the program, Shepherd said. If it turns out well for other municipalities, the township may reconsider.
“I think there would be a chance in the future to rejoin,” he said.
Wolford said she does not share those concerns because she expects the county to keep the best interests of the municipalities in mind, without burdening its partners.
“As with any new program, there are going to be glitches and issues and things like that. But I think the county realizes that many of the municipalities that are participating, we don't have a lot of resources,” she said.
The land bank is one of the first of its kind in the state. The law allowing such initiatives to be created was passed in late 2012.
Jacob Tierney is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-6646 or firstname.lastname@example.org.