Pittsburgh City council members wield veto power in vacant lot sales

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Robin E. Snyder dreams of building a countryside oasis in the city. So she had her eye on some city-owned property in the Hill District that was thickly wooded with gorgeous views. But before she could buy it, she had to convince Marimba Milliones of the Hill District Community Development Corp. that she was "a legitimate character."

"She gave [Councilman R. Daniel] Lavelle the thumbs up," Ms. Snyder said.

Ken Kasunick, longtime owner of Kasunick Welding and Fabricating, hoped to expand his commercial operation in Spring Garden by buying city-owned parcels. But Councilwoman Darlene Harris twice turned him down. The only explanation he got was the note handwritten on his returned deposit check: "Council not approve."

The city of Pittsburgh owns some 7,300 vacant and blighted parcels, land it is desperately trying to put in the hands of responsible owners so it no longer will bear the financial burden of maintaining them. That's part of the reason Councilwoman Deb Gross proposed a Pittsburgh Land Bank, a semi-autonomous body that will be dedicated to turning over the parcels -- often blighted eyesores -- for productive use.

But at the crux of the heated debate was whether city council should have oversight of land sales as it does now. While the city's real estate department completed 208 land sales last year, council members halted or delayed land sales 40 times, sometimes denying the same sale more than once.

Mr. Lavelle, who worried the land bank would not consult the community when it sold land, refused to support any legislation without it. Ultimately a compromise was struck: Council will have oversight for at least two years, at which point a vote can be taken to remove its authority over the process. The bill is expected to pass today.

For Mr. Lavelle, removing council's authority over land sales is too dangerous a proposition. Other council members agreed and believe it's a good way to ensure community involvement in the process.

"Worst-case scenario is you have a new authority with no checks and balances that now has the ability to independently acquire, hold onto and dispose of land anyway it chooses," he said last month.

But for prospective buyers such as Mr. Kasunick, it can add more confusion and more delays to an already befuddling process rife with waiting periods and paperwork. The land he was trying to buy, a vacant parcel at 1464 High St., remains undeveloped and in city hands.

Under the current system, city council votes on all land sales, and council members can amend the legislation to "delete" parcels to stop a sale. A review by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette showed some council members exercise this authority far more than often than others, and each have their own system for vetting prospective buyers.

William Waddell, head of the city's real estate division, spoke out in opposition of the land bank last week, saying many of the problems with the process could be resolved by simply staffing his department better. But he also said council approval is troubling because by the time council members vote up or down on a land sale, his department has conducted a thorough background check on the buyer.

"City council should stop abusing the process of denying the sale of city property without justification," he said.

Mr. Lavelle said it could potentially be useful to develop a policy to make the process of council approval run more smoothly. He's urged the real estate office to notify him when a land sale is starting in his district so he can let the prospective buyer know that they'll have to be approved by the local community groups, but that doesn't always happen.

"What I have sought to do is create a system that actually empowers the CDCs," he said. For example, developers and buyers who have been through the process already know they have to get the endorsement of a community group, so by the time most land sales reach his desk, he rubber stamps them. "If my community signs off, they have my support."

Ms. Harris, who represents much of the North Side, allows community groups to decide who gets to buy land in her district. That has led her to veto 45 prospective sales in the last four years, more than any other council member. Some of those sales were eventually approved, and some sales were vetoed more than once.

"We take it to that community organization, and when the community comes back, they tell us what they want us to do and that's what we do," she said. "I represent the people, so I'm not going to make that decision for their neighborhood."

She said she does not know what kind of process her community groups are using to decide whether to approve or disapprove a potential buyer.

"I don't meddle in their process," she said. "Why would I ask what the reason is? That would defeat the purpose of asking them. I trust my communities."

In the case of Mr. Kasunick, she said she never heard from him and, as far as she knew, he never contacted Spring Garden Neighborhood Council, the group that gives the thumbs up or down in the neighborhood where he was trying to buy land.

"When you don't hear from people or the neighborhood doesn't hear from them, then I just delete for that reason, too," she said.

Mr. Kasunick, who already had purchased other adjacent parcels, said, in fact, he made numerous calls to the councilwoman's office and never heard back.

While it might create additional headaches and delays, Councilwoman Theresa Kail-Smith, who employs a similar process, said it allows community groups a much-needed voice in the process. Communities may have different criteria for prospective buyers, but they're tailored to their unique set of issues.

"If we want to empower the communities ... there's no better way than to than to allow communities to develop their own criteria," she said.

She's deleted 26 parcels in the last four years, but said she ultimately approves nearly every one after they meet with community groups.

For Aaron Krocke, a real estate agent who lives in her district, the approval came too late. Mr. Krocke asked the city to acquire a tax-delinquent eyesore on his own block -- at 70 Harwood St. -- so he could purchase it. The entire process took months, and when it arrived at Ms. Kail-Smith's desk in October of last year, she vetoed it and then referred it to the Mount Washington Community Development Corp. for review.

The CDC, after speaking with Mr. Krocke, recommended that the councilwoman approve the sale. But before it could get back on the agenda, the dilapidated home on the property that Mr. Krocke had wanted to rehabilitate was mistakenly demolished by the city's bureau of building inspection.

It left him frustrated and angry, and he eventually decided to cancel the sale himself.

For Ms. Snyder, who is in the process of acquiring land in the Hill District, the process has been long and painful. The real estate department at one point lost her paperwork. Other paperwork that was to be forwarded to them was never received. Frustrated, she wrote a letter to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl last year, asking him to fix the process.

But despite the multiple delays, she wasn't offended when Mr. Lavelle vetoed her land sale and then asked her to meet with the local community development group. Mr. Lavelle has vetoed 38 properties in the last four years, some of which were later approved, like Ms. Snyder's.

"If you are a person who is responsible for a community, you want to know what's going on there," she said.

Ms. Snyder, who has a master's degree in business administration and left a long career in finance to become an entrepreneur, said she laid out her credentials and explained her loose vision for the property, roughly the shape of a football field cut in half triangularly: a house and a small bed and breakfast that could also house apartments. It was a way to make her boyfriend, who grew up in the countryside, more comfortable with city living.

Mr. Kasunick has not been so lucky. And while he said the city turning him down won't "make or break us," he added that it only holds up much needed development in Spring Garden.

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee. Robert Zullo: rzullo@post-gazette.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter: @rczullo.

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