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Tarentum's new plan to fight blight raises questions

| Wednesday, May 9, 2018, 9:18 p.m.
Tarentum, Pa.
Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
Tarentum, Pa.

Tarentum Council has a plan to deal with vacant buildings that sit deteriorating for years, even decades.

But, we see a couple of problems.

In theory, it's a great idea for a town that has blighted properties but already does a fair job of trying to keep pace with residential and commercial buildings built as far back as the early 1900s.

As an example, Tarentum has a list of blighted buildings it is systematically razing as money becomes available. Its streets are dotted with more empty, grassy lots where blighted properties once stood than in many towns.

But one of our biggest concerns regards how many exceptions the borough might allow.

Efforts to implement other get-tough policies initiated in other towns over the years seemed to go by the wayside after property owners pushed back.

In this instance, council is set to vote in early June to allow the borough to charge a significant, escalating annual fee on owners of vacant buildings.

It's intended to be another tool for the borough to combat blight and to prevent people from acquiring properties and then doing nothing with them, Borough Manager Michael Nestico said.

Council hasn't set the annual fee, but Nestico threw out example figures of $250 for the first year and $500 for the second, and it would escalate from there.

It would apply only to properties with buildings.

In business areas, vacant storefronts would need to have vinyl facades on their windows so passersby can't see inside.

Modeled after regulations in another municipality, the requirement had the effect of keeping property owners honest — they could no longer avoid occupancy inspections and fees by claiming a property was empty, Nestico said.

Nestico said the borough can prove occupancy more readily than most because Tarentum has its own power distribution department. If a building has no electricity, it's proof the building isn't being occupied.

There would be ways for property owners to avoid paying the fee, by appealing to council and satisfying certain conditions, Nestico said. Council would decide on a case-by-case basis.

There's no question that there has to be some leeway — the question is, how much? Last week, a West Tarentum resident said he has acquired two homes where the owners died, and he doesn't intend to rent them out.

“I've done more than my share of taking care of those empty lots,” the man said.

So what will council do in that case and others that will arise with their own unique situations?

Empty buildings lower the value of neighboring buildings, diminish that tax base and slowly add to blight.

So Tarentum's idea is good in concept.

Questions: Will it be designed in a way that it can withstand the blow back — possibly in court — and will council have the resolve to put its collective foot down when warranted?

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