New Westmoreland County land bank cleans up blighted lots

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Two abandoned houses in West Newton are scheduled to be demolished later this year, the first project of the newly formed Westmoreland County Land Bank, which has a mission to buy and eliminate blighted properties.

The land bank will team up with local municipalities to gain title to the properties and help get them back on the tax rolls by forgiving delinquent taxes.

Pam Humenik, West Newton manager, knows how frustrating these properties can be to their neighbors — she lives across the street from two abandoned houses in another part of the borough.

So does April Kopas, executive director of the land bank and director of the county redevelopment authority.

“I live next to a foreclosed house in Hempfield,” she said. “The grass isn’t cut and there are weeds, snakes and a leaking pool. You worry about the kids getting into it. It affects the quality of life in a community.

“And we know from studies that these abandoned properties have a negative effect on neighbors,” she said. “They reduce the property values among neighbors by 9 or 10 percent.”

“I’ve been with West Newton Borough for 24 years,” said Ms. Humenik, “and all municipalities are seeing more and more abandoned properties. So I’m a strong advocate of eliminating blight and I’m glad our council jumped on this program. We couldn’t do it without the county.”

She said the borough has been attempting to do something with the two abandoned houses at 201 and 203 N. Second St. for about six years.

“I have two abandoned properties near where I live,” she said. “I’ve lived here for 40 years, and we all keep our yards nice and plant flowers, but we have these two vacant houses where the grass isn’t cut.”

“We’re hoping to get title to the two properties in West Newton next month, and we’ll probably demolish them over the winter,” Mrs. Kopas said.

“In this case, one of the properties is being donated to us, and the other is going through a judicial free-and-clear sale,” she said. Those court sales abate delinquent property taxes and remove liens from the properties.

“Getting title to some of these properties can be very difficult for municipalities,” Mrs. Kopas said.

“But we are going to work hard to acquire them however we can.”

A 2012 state law authorized the creation of land banks, and county commissioners established the Westmoreland County Land Bank in December. Since then, 10 municipalities in the county have joined the program’s first phase: Jeannette, Greensburg, Latrobe, Mt. Pleasant Borough, Mt. Pleasant Township, Scottdale, South Greensburg, Youngwood, West Newton and Sewickley.

The state law allows land banks in municipalities or consortiums of 10,000 people or more, and 40 municipalities in Allegheny County recently joined to form their own land banks.

The Steel Valley, Turtle Creek Valley and Twin Rivers councils of governments, or COGs, decided to take advantage of the new law. A study commissioned by the COGs found that blight is costing their communities millions of dollars — in police, fire and code enforcement costs, lost tax revenue and declining property values.

“We got on board right away with this program because it gives us another option — to fix up the property, tear it down or sell it,” Youngwood council President Lloyd Crago said. “We have one property in foreclosure, for instance, and the two property owners on either side are interested in it for yards if we could tear it down.”

He said more property owners these days are simply “walking away” from properties, which brings complaints from neighbors.

“We had one guy last year who lives in California, and it took us forever to send him notices to fix up his property,” Mr. Crago said. “So this program should help speed up the process if the property is in the bank’s hands or there are absentee landlords. It should help us make the town look nicer and address neighbors’ complaints.”

The Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority allocated $50,000 in the spring to get the land bank off the ground and it has a revolving fund to buy and fix up properties.

Municipalities each chip in $5,000 to join, and municipalities and school districts must approve participation.

Once the blighted property is back on the tax rolls, the county, towns and school districts will send half of the property’s real estate taxes for five years to the land bank.

Each land bank has a board of directors, which holds public meetings and sets rules for its operation. Members of the county’‍s redevelopment authority are on the board of the land bank.

Many communities in the county have condemned and demolished dilapidated houses in recent years, only to have the properties sit vacant — in part because of delinquent taxes still owed to school districts, municipalities and the county.

So the land bank’s ability to buy those properties and abate the delinquent taxes will make the properties more attractive to new buyers or those who want to lease the property.

Mrs. Kopas said the land bank has had good results working with mortgage holders, who have released mortgages on some foreclosed properties.

She said the county has provided legal help to gain titles. The tax claim bureau solicitor will help get the property to a judicial sale so the land bank can obtain title to it.

Once the delinquent taxes and liens have been cleared in court, the land bank can acquire the properties for a few thousand dollars, she said, to cover the tax claim bureau’s fees for researching the title, advertising for creditors and going to court.

Mrs. Kopas said she hopes to include one or two properties from each of the 10 participating communities in the initial phase of the program.

“It’s not just the communities with condensed older housing, either, who need this help,” she said.

“We’‍ve just got a property donated in Mt. Pleasant Township, too,” she said.

The redevelopment authority held a seminar last fall to inform local officials in the county’s 65 municipalities about the program. Mrs. Kopas said the county wanted to begin the program gradually, so it cut off participation at the first 10 communities who joined.

But she anticipates expanding the program to additional county communities in the second phase.

“Our priority will be in properties that can be redeveloped,” she said. “It will be a mix of residential and commercial properties, and we’ll try to help prevent property values from declining and create some green space, too.”

“We know there will be more demand than we’ll have money for,” she said.

Mrs. Kopas said the land bank is working with county commissioners to seek additional funding. She said it would apply for state rehab funds available from Marcellus Shale gas fees as well as from foundations.

Debra Duncan, freelance writer:

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