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Westmoreland

Jeannette officials get inspiration from Central Pennsylvania city in fight against blight

Renatta Signorini
| Sunday, Jan. 15, 2017, 11:10 p.m.
426 S. Fifth St was approved by Jeannette council Wednesday for acquisition out of the county tax claim repository as part of a large-scale acquisition and demolition project.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
426 S. Fifth St was approved by Jeannette council Wednesday for acquisition out of the county tax claim repository as part of a large-scale acquisition and demolition project.
426 S. Fifth St was approved by Jeannette council Wednesday for acquisition out of the county tax claim repository as part of a large-scale acquisition and demolition project.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
426 S. Fifth St was approved by Jeannette council Wednesday for acquisition out of the county tax claim repository as part of a large-scale acquisition and demolition project.
Empty lot on South Fourth Street was approved by Jeannette council Wednesday for acquisition out of the county tax claim repository as part of a large-scale acquisition and demolition project.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Empty lot on South Fourth Street was approved by Jeannette council Wednesday for acquisition out of the county tax claim repository as part of a large-scale acquisition and demolition project.

A Central Pennsylvania city is serving as a model for Jeannette's new approach to attack its problem with blight.

“We used to have a beautiful town here. People used to take pride in their homes and yards. Most people still do,” said Robin Priester of Jeannette. “But it's looking run-down.”

Jeannette officials hope to replicate positive results Pottsville has seen through the unique method that involves creating a catalog of blighted properties and ticketing violators.

“It allows them to actually identify ones that are the worst blighted ones, what section of town is the worst,” Jeannette Mayor Richard Jacobelli said.

Members of a newly created blight task force will be identified by Jeannette council and officials at an inaugural public session Tuesday. The task force will meet monthly “to address blight and property issues within the community,” said manager Michael Nestico.

The second part of the attack lies in a “quality of life” ordinance that council is set to formally approve next month that allows officials to immediately ticket property owners for property maintenance violations.

Council has taken several steps — including creating a vacant property registry and purchasing properties from the county's repository for future demolition — over the last year to address dilapidated properties in the city.

The latest moves are ones that have seen some success in Pottsville, according to Tom Palamar, administrator of the Schuylkill County seat of about 14,000 residents. Both Pottsville and Jeannette have seen their populations decrease by about 1,500 people between 2000 and 2015, according to census figures. The 12-member Pottsville task force was created in 2013 and initially identified 300 blighted properties after a painstaking parcel-by-parcel review.

“We didn't really know what we were dealing with until we defined the problem,” Palamar said.

In 2015, Pottsville officials enacted a “quality of life” ordinance, which serves as a model for Jeannette's proposed rules that would allow officials to issue a $25 ticket for violations such as high grass, furniture in yards or junk vehicles, bypassing a time-consuming process of providing notification to a property owner and working through the district court system for citations.

That ticketing system has helped Pottsville become more efficient, and Palamar said officials have seen a lower rate of unshoveled sidewalks or uncut grass. Of those 300 blighted properties, Pottsville has seen 30 success stories, ranging from renovations to demolitions, he said.

“It's been a tough experience but a rewarding experience,” Palamar said. “It's been satisfying but frustrating as well.”

Jeannette fire Chief Vance Phillips, who is fire marshal and a code officer, will issue the “quality of life” tickets once the proposed ordinance is officially approved. He will be able to immediately hold a property owner accountable for a violation while conducting a building inspection rather than reporting the problem to code officer Ed Howley.

“We're doing these inspections, and we previously were seeing property maintenance issues,” Phillips said.

Jeannette Councilwoman Robin Mozley is excited about the prospects in a city of about 9,300 residents and 5,000 housing units where blight complaints are frequent. Pottsville has about 7,500 housing units.

“You can drive down any street, any given day and see violations,” Mozley said. “Our objective isn't to make money off of this. Our objective is to clean up the town.”

The blight task force will be a concerted effort to remedy problems while keeping an eye on dilapidated properties up for tax sale or in the county's repository, Nestico said.

“We're going to try to isolate problem properties,” he said. “We're going to try to identify problem areas.”

Council on Wednesday authorized the acquisition of four blighted properties out of the county's tax claim bureau repository on Clay Avenue and South Fifth and South Fourth streets, adding to at least six others previously OK'd for purchase. The buys are part of a large-scale acquisition and demolition project getting underway with $250,000 allocated from the city's reserve account that was created with $4 million in proceeds from the February 2015 sale of the city's sewer system to the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County.

Reporter Kevin Zwick contributed. Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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