Blighted property

A house on Walnut Street on the city's Lower East Side is one of several houses the city is looking at as blighted. This house exhibits overgrown grass and shrubbery and broken windows on the second floor.

New Castle's mayor has the task of appointing seven people to serve on a blight action team.

The team's goal will be to identify five properties within the city that are considered to be blighted and that have the highest potential for being repurposed. The action team will meet every other month, and, in hand with the city, will work with the owners of those properties to make changes to reuse them.

Forming of a blight action team was one of several strategies recommended by Christopher Gulotta of Easton, a consultant hired by the city to advise it as to how to rid the community of blight.

Gulotta and Diana Kerr have been working with a 13-member task force appointed by Mayor Anthony Mastrangelo to address blight and develop strategies to eliminate it in the city. Gulotta and Kerr are under contract with the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania and are available to New Castle as a distressed city under Act 47. The city received a $36,000 Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development grant to create a blight elimination plan.

About 25 people attended a public presentation by Gulotta at the Confluence on Wednesday, when he presented his findings and recommendations of how to address New Castle's blighted property problems. One recommendation was to form the action team.

Richard Beshero, a councilman who sits on the blight task force, was out of town at another obligation and was unable to attend the meeting. No other elected city council members attended.

Gulotta and Kerr and other city officials and consultants met Thursday to discuss housing conditions, the number of blighted properties in the city, and how to make the city's code system work to map out blighted areas, according to Tammi Gibson, the city's economic development and neighborhood stabilization coordinator.

Thursday attendees, in addition to Gulotta and Gibson, were Kerr and Debbie Grass of Pittsburgh, an Act 47 consultant, fire chief Eric Lee Perry, code enforcement director Anthony Cioffi, business manager Stephanie Dean, Mayor Anthony Mastrangelo, and city solicitor Jason Medure.

At Wednesday's session, Gulotta reviewed the results of a blight strategy plan for the city with recommendations of how to implement it effectively. He has been working with a 14-member task force of community and economic development members.

One of his recommendations was for the city to develop a land bank.

However, the county commissioners are a step ahead and approved an ordinance Tuesday to establish a land bank countywide. While the city can still form its own, Gulotta said it will be interesting to see how the county land bank operates first.

The county will have to approve a board of directors to oversee the land bank and that is the next step in their process.

A land bank is a collection of properties that have been foreclosed upon, or are in tax sale, that the county sees can be used for repurposing or redevelopment.

The task force voted three strategies as the most important in addressing blight, Gulotta said, emphasizing that "prevention is the most cost-effective strategy and the most effective."

They are:

• For city council to enact an ordinance allowing ticketing for code violations. This allows code enforcement to cite property owners, giving a smaller time frame to clean up the properties.

• Disqualifying property owners from participating in tax sales, who are delinquent in paying their taxes.

"There is a cycle of abandonment that keeps repeating itself," Gulotta said. He pointed out that state law also allows for a property owner to be disqualified from buying property at a tax sale, who has previous code violations.

The municipalities need to share information with the tax claim bureau, of people who have adjudicated code violations or even delinquent utility bills, he said, adding, "Why would you let those people buy property in your community?"

• Establish a land bank.

"A land bank under state law has the ability to be a priority bidder at a judicial tax sale," Gulotta said. The land bank overseers can have an agreement with the tax claim bureau and may be the only bidder on these properties.

He pointed out that Westmoreland County has one of the more active land banks and has returned 26 properties to the tax base.

"The idea is to repurpose, and move that property to a productive use," he said, "either with housing or commercial development."

"Even challenged neighborhoods have a bright future if a strategized approach is deployed," Gulotta concluded.

dwachter@ncnewsonline.com

Reporter

Debbie's been a journalist at the New Castle News since 1978, and covers county government, police and fire, New Castle schools, environment and various other realms. She also writes features, takes photos and video and copy edits.

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