County, city interpret definition of blight

This house at 709 Emerson Ave. is slated to be demolished by the Pennsylvania National Guard.

There’s been a lot of talk lately by Lawrence County and city officials regarding blight and what to do about the eyesore, ramshackle buildings that are preventing both future development and a positive perception of the community.

But what, exactly, is blight?

“It’s an elusive term,” said County solicitor Thomas W. Leslie. He deferred comment to  county administrator James Gagliano, a facilitator of the county redevelopment authority and land bank, who works with the parameters of the term almost daily.

Gagliano offered a definition of the term, as dictated by the Pennsylvania Urban Redevelopment Law. The measure, enacted in 1945, was amended in August 2006.

“The redevelopment authority defines blight as what is detailed in that law,” he said. “This is what we go by.”

The law’s purpose is to promote the elimination of blighted areas and supply sanitary housing in areas statewide. It contains nine different factors that define blight, he said.

Those are: 

•Any premises which because of physical condition or use is regarded as a public nuisance ... or has been declared a public nuisance according to the local housing, building, plumbing, fire and related codes.

•Any premise which because of physical condition, use or occupancy is a considered an attractive nuisance to children, such as abandoned wells, shafts, basements, excavations or unsafe fences or structures.

•Any dwelling which, because it is dilapidated, unsanitary, unsafe, vermin-infested or lacking in the facilities required by the municipality’s housing code, has been designated as unfit for habitation.

•Any structure that is a fire hazard or is dangerous to persons or property.

•Any structure from which utilities, plumbing, heating, sewage or other facilities have been disconnected, destroyed removed or are inoperable so the property is unfit for intended use.

•Any vacant or unimproved lot or parcel of ground in a predominantly built-up neighborhood, which by reason of neglect or lack of maintenance has accumulated trash and debris or is a haven for rodents or other vermin.

•An unoccupied property that has been tax delinquent for two years before the effective date of the act, and those after it that have two year delinquency.

•A vacant property that is not tax delinquent but has not been rehabilitated within a year of the receipt of notice to rehabilitate it from the appropriate code enforcement agency.

•An abandoned property.

The county redevelopment authority is to work with local municipalities on addressing blight removal countywide. The authority around late 2017 sent surveys to all 27 municipalities in Lawrence County asking them to identify any problem properties within their jurisdictions that fit with the definition of blight, Gagliano said. That was when the county’s land bank was first created.

The authority received three responses to the survey  — from the city of New Castle, Union Township and Ellwood City Borough.

The surveys were not a one-time thing, he said, “It’s an open invitation.”

REDEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY ROLE

“It’s not the land bank that does the demolition of properties,” Gagliano explained, noting that the county redevelopment authority is the entity that provides the funds for the demolition process.

The funding for the demolition comes from the county’s Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund allocation, money from Acts 153 and 137 through the county register and recorder’s office from realty transfer fees and money the county has allocated in the past, but did not do so this year, Gagliano said.

The authority last year provided funding for the demolition of three homes that were submitted for demolition by Ellwood City Borough, a mobile home in Taylor Township, two houses in Union Township and a couple in Shenango that were razed.

“When a local municipality identifies a property and and demolishes it, the redevelopment fund will reimburse the municipality,” Gagliano said.

The redevelopment authority plans to meet publicly at 1 p.m. on Wednesday in the commissioners meeting room in the courthouse, to take action on six contracts for demolition, most or all of which are in the city, Gagliano said.

He noted that in the county’s discussions about blight in the city, “there is no discrepancy in the blight definition, as far as we’re concerned. He said the county planning staff, which oversees a lot of the contracts and work, works closely with the parameters of the city code.”

THE CITY’S DEFINITION

“Blight is a complicated term used in a generalized basis,” city solicitor Jason Medure said. He said the city government adheres pretty strongly to the Pennsylvania Blight Act, Act 157.

“We incorporated it into our codified ordinances several years ago,” he said.

The act itself does not have blight defined by definition, but refers to “public nuisance,” which is defined as a property that, because of physical condition or use, has been declared by the appropriate official a public nuisance in accordance with the local housing, building, health, fire or related code or is determined to be a public nuisance by the court.

The purpose of the blight act is that Pennsylvania’s older communities are important to the commonwealth’s economic health by providing a focal point for businesses and services and to quality of life. However, many older communities suffer from blighted properties that have been abandoned by their owners. Many citizens are adversely affected by abandoned and blighted residential, commercial and industrial properties, including those who live near to substandard buildings and those who own property in the vicinity of such buildings.

The act declares that such substandard, deteriorating and abandoned structures are a public safety threat and nuisance and they  diminish property values in their communities. If those buildings are not rehabilitated, they are likely to remain abandoned and further deteriorate, resulting in increased costs to the Commonwealth, municipality and taxpayers to secure and ultimately demolish them.

The act continues that providing a mechanism to transform abandoned and blighted buildings into productive reuse is an opportunity for communities to modernize, revitalize and grow, and to improve the quality of life for neighbors who are already there.

The act provides that if the owner of a building fails to maintain the property in accordance with applicable municipal codes or standards of public welfare or safety, it is in the best interest of the commonwealth, the municipality and the community for the court, pursuant to the provisions of this act, to appoint a conservator to make the necessary improvements before the building deteriorates further and necessitates demolition.

LAND BANK

The county land bank, established last year, has an aggressive demolition policy and is authorized to accelerate the acquisition and demolition of abandoned nuisance properties.

“The removal of nuisance properties through demolition increases public safety, appearance and property values in neighborhoods and clears the path for new development,” according to a printed handout about the land bank.

Gagliano pointed out that the county’s land bank right now is focusing on getting repository properties back onto the tax roles by selling them, and primarily, they are bare lots with no structures on them. The county has been working on selling lots as side yards to property owners who want to buy the next-door lots to prevent blight, Gagliano said.

The handout states that homeowners with a land bank-owned vacant land next to their own property may have an opportunity to buy that property as a side yard for a nominal cost. 

It is the land bank’s intention to merge such land bank parcels with adjacent property owners so that the property owner’s land value is enhanced and vacant lots are restored to the tax rolls, the information sheet explains.

 The next meeting of the land bank board is scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday in the commissioners meeting room, after the redevelopment authority meeting.

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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