Pittsburgh City Council hears land bank concerns

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At a public meeting Thursday, dozens of residents lined up to express concerns about a bill before Pittsburgh City Council that would create a land bank, a mechanism that is intended to streamline the process of redeveloping vacant and tax-delinquent land.

Jerome Jackson of Operation Better Block in Homewood told council members that he was concerned about the lack of community input on the bill but backed the idea of land banking.

"Homewood is the most blighted community in the city of Pittsburgh. We have thousands of vacant properties," he said. "I do believe that we need land banking legislation."

The bill, sponsored by Councilwoman Deb Gross, would turn over the entire process of handling vacant and tax-delinquent property owned by the city to the newly created land bank, which would have its own staff and a board of directors selected by the mayor and city council. Under current law, property owners who are more than two years behind on their taxes risk having their property seized by the city. With the land banking bill, those properties would go into the land bank. It's meant to catalyze the process of fixing up these parcels, which are often blighted eyesores.

But Councilman Ricky Burgess has expressed severe reservations about the bill, which would take the control over what happens to land that falls into the city's hands out of council and cedes it to the land bank. In a letter to 10,000 of his constituents, he characterized the land banking bill as a "land grab."

In a presentation, Mr. Burgess pointed out that about 50 percent of his district -- which includes Homewood and Lincoln-Larimer -- could fall under the land bank's control. Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle's district -- which includes the Hill District and Uptown -- is nearly that amount.

"This is what the Hill District looks like," Mr. Burgess said, pulling up a map that highlighted the eligible parcels in red. "It's 45 percent ... which means a land bank could seize all of its land."

Mr. Burgess also stoked fear among the audience that "the land bank could take your house" if you fall behind on taxes, a power that the city currently has when owners fall more than two years behind.

"They could gentrify a third of Homewood without anybody having any input," he said.

The current bill calls for the board to take into account community plans. It's also a work in progress, said Ms. Gross, who added that community meetings will be held across the city to discuss the bill and she looked forward to the public's input.

A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 20 at 6 p.m. in city council chamber at the City-County Building.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.

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