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Westmoreland County Land bank enables Jeannette to clean up blight

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April Kopas

In December 2013, the Westmoreland County Commissioners adopted state legislation to develop a land bank.

According to the U.S. Government website, a land bank is a nonprofit organization that focuses on developing vacant or abandoned properties to be sold and put back onto the tax rolls.

April Kopas, the director of the Westmoreland County Redevelopment authority said land banks could work in several different ways.

“Communities could have a land bank on their own, but the communities in Westmoreland County overwhelmingly supported the land bank county wide. In this way we (the county) can staff it, where municipalities might not have the resources to do that” said Kopas.

The first step was appointing a board of directors and setting in place policies and procedures as to outlining what the land bank would do in the county.

The Westmoreland County Land Bank is only the third land bank in the entire commonwealth. Kopas brought numerous groups and individuals to the table for the set-up process that included representation from affordable housing, school districts, the conservation district and business leaders.

Jeannette city solicitor Scott Avolio serves as the land bank’s secretary and Kopas is the executive director.

“We decided that we would limit the number of municipalities that could participate in the first year and then expand. We signed on 10 municipalities, one of which is Jeannette.

“We also signed on their school boards, because the municipalities and school district have to be willing to waive things like liens and realty transfer taxes. The rationale is that we pledge to do projects to take blighted and abandoned and foreclosed properties and develop strategies for reuse,” said Kopas.

The municipalities contributed $5,000 to the land bank and agreed to maintain the properties. School districts make no financial contributions, but once the property goes back onto the tax rolls 50 percent of the taxes return to the land bank for five years.

There are 10 properties currently held by the land bank county wide and five of them are in Jeannette. Those five parcels make up the Monsour property. Using the land bank to assist with the issues at Monsour has allowed Jeannette to leverage resources that would not necessarily be available to the city on its own.

The land bank is partnering with the county’s Industrial Development Corporation, which will serve as the project manager, secure funding for the project, and oversee the demolition, according to Kopas.

“The Westmoreland County Land Bank allows the City of Jeannette access to additional professional services and opportunities in the battle against blighted and dilapidated property.

“Although it is not a quick fix (or a magic pill) the land back is a newly created quasi-government tool that when coupled with accessible funding (public and also private) may provide rehabilitation and development of properties that have either fallen into disrepair and/or foreclosure, or are properties that have fallen off the tax rolls and need an infusion to be able to be economically viable for sale,” said Avolio.

According to Kopas, although Monsour is probably the most notable of the projects, other projects will mostly be residential that are tax and property foreclosed.

“The goal is to stabilize neighborhoods and we can put more money into them to revitalize them. We will work closely with city officials, the schools, code enforcement and the tax claim bureaus to get properties ready. The city has been a tremendous help in moving this process forward,” said Kopas.

Although the Monsour case is somewhat different, because Jeannette has its own Community Development Department, in most cases the city will pay for the demolition of the properties.

This is because Jeannette opted to participate in the Act 179 entitlements which guarantee cities at least $300,000 annually for community development funds. Some communities in Westmoreland County do not participate and those redevelopment projects are chosen and administered solely by the county.

Kopas said the land bank welcomes the opportunity to work with lenders and even owners that have foreclosed properties.

“We know that not all the owners are bad people, but are people that fell on bad times. Sometimes owners can donate property to us. Often there are cases when a relative has passed away and other relatives are unable to maintain the property,” said Kopas.

Currently, a project is moving forward in Jeannette where a lender will donate a foreclosed property to the land bank for redevelopment.

“There is a helplessness in the neighborhood when there is a foreclosed home and when we have a property, we are going to work to find the ownership, clean up the liens and titles and get it into the hands of the owners so the properties contribute rather than strain the municipal budget,” said Kopas.

“By joining the land bank, the city gets all kinds of technical assistance, but Community Development Coordinator Diana Reitz and other city officials know all the back stories on properties and that is invaluable.

“We will be working closely with them,” said Kopas.

To learn more about the land bank or to view listed properties, visit www.co.westmoreland.pa.us and type land bank into the search engine at the top left of the page, or contact Kopas or her staff at 724-830-3050.

Margie Stanislaw is a contributing writer.

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