Luzerne County committee preparing to accept blighted property database nominations

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - [email protected] | September 24th, 2017 7:11 pm

Luzerne County municipalities can start nominating abandoned eyesore properties for a new countywide blight database on Oct. 1, officials 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.

The county’s Blighted Property Review Committee is overseeing the database.

The committee has invited officials from the county’s 72 boroughs and townships to attend an informational session at 5 p.m. Monday in the county courthouse on River Street in Wilkes-Barre, said committee Chairman Harry Haas, who also is a county councilman.

“This is a great opportunity for all the boroughs and townships across Luzerne County to come with comments, questions, suggestions or just to get a better handle on the process,” Haas said.

The county’s four cities — Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Nanticoke and Pittston — can’t participate in the new program by law because they have their own redevelopment authorities to address blight, Haas said.

Under the process adopted by the committee, municipalities nominating properties must provide documentation on a structure’s 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, authority Executive Director Andrew Reilly has said.

Funding options to address blighted properties also will be discussed at the municipal session, Haas said.

Boroughs and townships receive county community development funding every three years for public improvement projects, which could include blight elimination, said Reilly, who also oversees county community development. Additional funding to target blight may be available from his office depending on the project and demand, he said.

For example, Conyngham Township recently bought a deteriorating apartment building with a collapsing roof for $1 from a pool of tax-delinquent repository properties, and officials plan to tear down the structure using county community development funding.

The county blight committee also has discussed another revenue option — a fee on deed and mortgage recordings. A new state 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.

A total 10,583 deeds and 8,679 mortgages were processed by the county in 2016, which means a new $10 fee would have generated $192,620 for blight elimination.

The committee will hold a public meeting at 4 p.m. before Monday’s municipal session.


By Jennifer Learn-Andes

[email protected]

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