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Jeannette trudges through blight

Renatta Signorini
| Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015, 12:01 a.m.
This rundown house at 324 Chestnut St. in Jeannette is one of the condemned properties slated to be razed by the city. Officials are instituting a catalog system to track at-risk properties in the city before they fall too far into disrepair.
Phil Wilson | For Trib Total Media
This rundown house at 324 Chestnut St. in Jeannette is one of the condemned properties slated to be razed by the city. Officials are instituting a catalog system to track at-risk properties in the city before they fall too far into disrepair.
This house  at 40 Cuyler Ave. in Jeannette is condemned and slated to be razed by the city. Officials are instituting a catalog system to track at-risk properties and hold owners accountable for fixing them up before they fall too far into disrepair.
Phil Wilson | For Trib Total Media
This house at 40 Cuyler Ave. in Jeannette is condemned and slated to be razed by the city. Officials are instituting a catalog system to track at-risk properties and hold owners accountable for fixing them up before they fall too far into disrepair.

Randall Stout hardly notices anymore the broken windows and overgrown weeds taking over the blue house next door to his on Chestnut Street in Jeannette.

The condemned home torched by arsonists three years ago has simply become part of the neighborhood landscape, an eyesore likely bringing down property values around it as its shell stands exposed to elements and random piles of trash stuffed inside an open basement door.

“I don't know what you can do with it,” Stout said.

Ray Pedder on Cuyler Avenue has similar frustrations. The green, two-story home next to his was condemned by the city health board more than a year ago.

“We get oppossums and skunks and rats here that come onto the porch,” he said. “We're pretty much to the point where we don't pay attention to it anymore.”

The city is paying attention. But it's a tough problem to solve for a city too poor to pay to demolish all of the blighted, abandoned properties dotting its streets.

“Some of these owners, we can't even find,” Mayor Richard Jacobelli said. “They walk away from these properties, and we're left with an abandoned home. I don't think people really realize what the city has to go through to get these properties down.”

A strategy in the fight against blight is for the city to get involved before a property is too far gone to save. Code officials have begun canvassing the town to establish an inventory of vacant properties with the goal of holding owners accountable for keeping them from becoming hazardous.

“We want to pin down what we are looking at, what we're up against,” city Manager Michael Nestico said. “The public ends up paying the price for the (owners) allowing (blight) to happen.”

The city has used a portion of annual state grants to tear down about 30 condemned buildings at a cost of roughly $184,000 since 2010. But many more remain, and as the long, costly process from condemning to demolishing a building goes on, other properties may continue to go downhill.

“You can shuffle all them through that process, but that doesn't mean they're going to be coming down any time soon,” Nestico said. “The big hurdle is the finances. It's very expensive. It's not a quick or easy process.”

Blighted properties have been plaguing the city of about 9,400 people for years. Code officer Ed Howley said it can take months to years before a structure is condemned by the health board, depending on the property owner's willingness to work with the city. Then, the unsafe structures stand for even longer until funds are available for demolition.

Fifteen condemned properties are awaiting funds for demolition, which can range from $8,000 to $50,000. Other properties with unpaid taxes, some in poor condition, become subject to a county tax or judicial sales. Unsold properties go to a county repository.

Community development Director Diana Reitz uses a portion of annual state grants to demolish the most dangerous structures, usually between five and seven properties annually. Four condemned properties, including the Chestnut Street and Cuyler Avenue homes, are next on the list to be razed.

“There's a long list of properties that need to be removed,” she said.

Cataloging of the properties could slow the growth of that list.

City officials said the database being developed will help identify problem neighborhoods or patterns with a particular property owner. If code violations exist, officials can cite the owners.

“That's going to help greatly for us to manage the situation here,” Howley said.

Vacant properties that aren't necessarily violating ordinances can be monitored, instead of waiting for them to become hazardous and so far gone that renovations aren't financially feasible for the owner, Nestico said.

Councilman Gabriel Homan hopes the city can invest a small portion — as much as $150,000 — of the $4 million in proceeds from the sale of its municipal authority earlier this year into clearing out some of the uninhabitable properties.

“These houses are homes to vagrants, lots of drug dealing. ... They attract garbage that can be dumped there and attract stray animals,” Homan said.

Putting more money behind getting rid of them would be a smart investment, he said.

“It beautifies the city. It makes it a safer city,” he said.

Renatta Signorini is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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