Luzerne County close to implementing blight reduction plan

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - [email protected] | June 11th, 2017 8:18 pm

A new initiative to compile an official Luzerne County list of abandoned eyesore properties is nearing implementation, officials say.

The county Blighted Property Review Committee, which was created last year, should be ready by the end of the summer to start accepting nominations of rundown properties from the county’s 72 townships and boroughs, said committee Chairman Harry Haas.

The four cities in the county can’t participate in the new program by law because they have their own redevelopment authorities to address blight, Haas said.

Vacant properties could be declared blighted and placed on the list for numerous reasons, including public nuisance code violations, safety problems that may attract and endanger children, unaddressed vermin infestations or broken or disconnected utilities, plumbing, heating or sewage systems.

Here’s how the process works, according to county documents:

Municipalities nominating properties must provide documentation on their last known date of occupancy, blight conditions and citations and other efforts to try to force the owners to address deficiencies.

If the committee concludes a property qualifies for the list, it issues a warning letter to the property owner explaining what action must be taken to eliminate the blight and providing a reasonable time period for action.

When that period has lapsed, the committee will pass a resolution deeming the property blighted unless the owner has corrected deficiencies.

This resolution informs the owner of steps that must be taken to remedy problems and warns the property may be subject to condemnation due to noncompliance.

The owner has the option to submit a rehabilitation plan or request a hearing before a committee panel to present defense evidence. The panel’s decision is subject to appeal in county court.

Upheld or uncontested violations not addressed in six months result in a certification hearing formally placing the property in the blight database.

Once that happens, the county Redevelopment Authority can do nothing or take action. The authority’s options include securing ownership through eminent domain or attempting to find an interested buyer on its own or in coordination with the municipality.

The authority’s ability to act will depend largely on the number of properties in the database and funding available to target blight, said authority Executive Director Andrew Reilly.

Some community development funding may be tapped if the projects meet federal regulations.

Reilly said he encouraged the committee to explore another revenue option — a fee on deed and mortgage recordings authorized last November by a new state law.

The law allows counties to charge a fee of up to $15 on each recording to create a fund to demolish blighted properties within their borders.

Mary Dysleski, who oversees county deeds and wills, said she was asked to brief the committee on the new law at an upcoming meeting.

It’s similar to a state-authorized Housing Trust Fund the county implemented in 2003 to provide matching funds to income-eligible, first-time home buyers and other affordable housing initiatives. That fund comes from a $13 fee on mortgages and deeds.

Dysleski’s office processed 10,583 deeds and 8,679 mortgages in 2016, she said. Based on that volume, a new $10 fee for blighted property would generate $192,620.

Counties participating in the blight fee must implement protocol on how the money is spent and designate an entity to administer the funds, she said. The county community development office oversees the Housing Trust Fund.

In addition to Haas, the committee members are: county Planning Commission board member George Prehatin; county Redevelopment Authority board member Scott Linde; county Operational Services Division Head Edmund O’Neill; and citizen representative Andrew Holter.

Haas, a county councilman, stressed the new blight database initiative won’t involve occupied properties.

“We’re not evicting anyone. Neighbors and taxpayers will be happy because its an extra tool in the belt for municipalities that have been dealing with these derelict properties for years,” he said.

A blighted property on the corner of Pine and Maxwell Streets in Wilkes-Barre seen in 2015. (Pete G. Wilcox|Times Leader) blighted property on the corner of Pine and Maxwell Streets in Wilkes-Barre seen in 2015. (Pete G. Wilcox|Times Leader)

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

[email protected]

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.