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Land bank peps up Westmoreland community with initial sale

| Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015, 12:01 a.m.

The Westmoreland County Land Bank recently made its first sale — two vacant lots that a West Newton church intends to convert into parking lots — and is close to a deal to sell parcels in Mt. Pleasant Township, the program director said.

“These properties (in West Newton) were acquired by the land bank because they were abandoned and unsafe structures. The reuse will benefit the entire community. The reuse is better than anticipated,” said April Kopas, executive director of the county land bank.

She said the West Newton properties are the first sold by a land bank in Pennsylvania.

The land bank sold the properties at 201 and 203 N. Second St. to the First Church of God for $1,598 on Feb. 11. Closing costs and transaction fees raised the total to nearly $3,600.

The county had acquired the parcel at 203 N. Second St. when the borough donated it to the land bank, while the second property was acquired from the county's repository of unsold tax-delinquent properties.

In December, the county redevelopment authority had three dilapidated buildings on the properties razed. The Rev. Elizabeth Dunlap, pastor of First Church of God, characterized the structures as a “danger to the neighborhood.”

Kopas credited West Newton officials for spearheading the effort.

Pamela Humenik, borough secretary, promoted the concept of the land bank to council last year.

Borough officials wanted to join the land bank so that tax-delinquent, blighted properties could be sold and returned to the tax rolls.

“I wanted (West Newton) to be first. It's not just taking a dilapidated building down so the land can sit vacant. It's about getting it back to the tax rolls,” Humenik said.

Although church property typically is exempt from taxes, the parking lots will be taxable under an agreement, Kopas said.

West Newton is one of 12 municipalities in the program, Kopas said. Ten municipalities were part of the original group, and Derry Borough and Irwin recently joined. Kopas anticipates more municipalities will want to participate.

She expects the second sale of land bank parcels —at 86 School St., Mt. Pleasant Township — will occur soon, once documents are processed and a structure on the property is demolished.

“We've had a lot of interest from neighboring property owners,” Kopas said.

The land bank has 10 properties for sale, six of which are in Jeannette. Most of the structures will be demolished, while a few are candidates for rehabilitation, Kopas said.

Humenik said West Newton has “numerous” other buildings in town that would make good candidates for the land bank program.

For the First Church of God in West Newton, acquiring land for parking was important because the church is in the midst of a crowded neighborhood and parking is at a premium, said Howard Crissman, church council president.

“Parking is essential in that neighborhood,” Crissman said.

The old buildings, including a barn at the rear of the parcels, were “a danger to the neighborhood,” Dunlap said. “It was such a blessing to see what opportunities it has brought to our community.”

Many of the church's 60 active parishioners are senior citizens, Crissman said. The newly acquired property, about a half block from the church, will accommodate 15 to 20 parking spaces.

The church has estimated it will cost about $50,000 to construct the parking lot, Crissman said. Church officials hope to begin work on the project this spring.

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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