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Pittsburgh City Council members air doubts about land bank legislation

A letter that four Pittsburgh City Council members sent to thousands of residents called a colleague’s land bank proposal “predatory” and promoted a meeting set for Tuesday to discuss potential alternatives.

R. Daniel Lavelle of the Hill District, Darlene Harris of Spring Garden, Theresa Kail-Smith of Westwood and Ricky Burgess of North Point Breeze signed the letter, dated March 18. It went to residents of their council districts, who number 30,000, according to Burgess’ office.

A proposal by Councilwoman Deb Gross of Highland Park would establish a land bank as a way to transfer vacant city-owned or tax-delinquent properties to homebuyers and developers.

“Those outside of our community want to create what could be a predatory land bank that will seize all vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties,” wrote the council members. They said the land bank would mean more than 27,000 city properties could be taken without community participation or benefit.

According to the proposal, a board of directors would oversee the land bank, acquire properties through foreclosure sales and an expedited title process, and then resell them. Gross said she and Councilman Corey O’Connor of Squirrel Hill are drafting amendments based on five weeks of community meetings.

“Moving forward, it is important to the future of our neighborhoods that the discussion focus on uniting communities, opening dialogue between each other and working together to structure the land bank as a transparent tool for neighborhoods to use to drive development from the ground up, block by block,” Gross said.

Potential amendments include a public petition process and more council oversight of rules and procedures. Council would have to approve land bank purchases of city-owned property.

Burgess and Lavelle have amendments they plan to present at Tuesday’s meeting. Burgess said they focus on community participation, protection and benefits. He said in its current form, the land bank, starting its operation with no money, could cherry-pick the most valuable properties.

“At the minimum, council must maintain its oversight role,” he said. “Only elected officials are truly accountable to the community.”

Mayor Bill Peduto, speaking at an economic development event, said he understood some of the concerns.

“Of course there’s going to be trepidation anytime the government says we have a policy that involves land,” he said. “You make sure that the concerns of the community are not only heard, but are being addressed.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].


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