Without funding and authority to proceed, Luzerne County’s blighted property review committee met this week to discuss the possibility of disbanding.
Instead, committee members decided to make one final appeal to county officials so the group can proceed with plans to compile a countywide database of eyesore properties.
“This is too important to let go,” said George Prehatin, who serves as the county planning commission’s representative on the committee.
The committee is at a standstill because council’s 2016 ordinance creating the committee said the county Redevelopment Authority would provide administrative and legal help.
But the authority concluded it would not have adequate administrative and legal staffing to provide that service. Instead, the authority agreed to reimburse the county $15,000 for the services of the county council clerk and an assistant county solicitor and other committee expenses in 2018.
A council majority refused both the $15,000 and an ordinance amendment in December, with some members citing concerns the county would be on the hook for additional expenses or liability.
During this week’s meeting, Prehatin said the committee should assure council it would stop accepting new municipal applications to place properties in the database before risking overspending of the $15,000 cap. Processing some requests is better than none, he said.
Prehatin also stressed the committee funding is solely to compile the database.
The redevelopment authority must handle and identify additional funding for blighted property acquisition, demolition and rehabilitation, Prehatin said.
The only liability claim that could be aimed at the committee would be an allegation that the due process rights of a property owner were violated, said Kaitlyn Twigger, the assistant county solicitor assigned to the committee.
Such a claim would not hold up because the committee will follow comprehensive protocol ensuring owners have ample opportunity to keep their blighted properties out of the database, Twigger said.
Councilman Harry Haas, who championed the committee and chairs it, said the plan is worthwhile to help municipalities address eyesore properties that have plagued their residents.
“It’s sad it had to take that route,” he said of the December council denials.
County Planning/Zoning Executive Director James Ferry and Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Andrew Reilly told the committee they will discuss options with county Manager C. David Pedri.
While the authority was willing to earmark $15,000, it does not have the financial resources to provide staff to handle the blight database unless the county identifies and provides a steady funding stream, said Reilly, who also oversees the county community development office.
The committee also agreed to present its case at council’s Feb. 27 work session.
Under the committee’s plan, vacant properties could be declared blighted and placed in the database 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.
Officials in the county’s 72 boroughs and townships must nominate properties and 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. The county’s four cities — Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Nanticoke and Pittston — can’t participate in the program by law because they have their own redevelopment authorities to address blight, officials said.
Upheld or uncontested violations not addressed by property owners within six months result in a certification hearing formally placing a property in the blight database. Once that happens, the authority can do nothing or take action, including securing ownership through eminent domain.