Christmas brings city new tool to fight blight

Legislation will provide Washington a new tool to fight blight

December 2, 2012
Scott Putnam, chairman of the Washington Citywide Development Corp., is looking forward to utilizing a new land bank provision to rid the city of blighted and tax-delinquent properties, including a condemned building at the corner of North Main and Chestnut streets. - Andy McNeil / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

The city of Washington, along with other state municipalities with a population of more than 10,000, are looking forward to Christmas and a special legislative present that provides them with a new tool to fight blight and spur development.

Gov. Tom Corbett last month signed the Land Bank Act that allows local governments to take control of blighted properties and cancel tax liens and bank foreclosures so the land can be sold to responsible owners or developers willing to improve hard-luck neighborhoods. The new law goes into effect Dec. 24.

The law enables municipalities, such as Washington, to use “land banks” to return abandoned or tax-delinquent properties back to productive status and boost their tax bases.

Land banks act very similarly to municipal authorities and have the power to acquire and rehabilitate abandoned and vacant properties, making them once again valuable additions to the community.

In Washington’s case, its Citywide Development Corp. will be assigned responsibility for the city’s land bank, according to Mayor Brenda Davis.

Davis explained that when formed last year, the corporation was set up in a manner to meet requirements in anticipation of new laws designed to help cities fight blight within their boundaries.

“We already have a head start on it,” said Davis, adding that sites, both residential and commercial, have already been pinpointed throughout the city.

CDC Chairman Scott Putnam said the corporation is already putting together a list of properties that can be added to the land bank, including buildings on North Main Street that have been condemned by city Code Enforcement Officer Ron McIntyre.

The legislation provides ways for the land bank to efficiently interact with the tax sale system, including granting an expedited quiet title process for clearing title to properties the bank acquires.

Solicitor Lane Turturice pointed out the law also gives overseers of the land bank first dibs at acquiring property before it goes to tax sale. And, he said, the acquired property then can be transferred to a developer or homeowner without any advertising or bidding requirements.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Putnam, who went on to explain the city will now be able to take over the properties and sell them at market value rather than them being sold for pennies on the dollar at a tax sale.

The city’s fight against blight officially began shortly after the new administration took over at the beginning of the year with the founding of the Blight Task Force, which is comprised of individuals from the private and public sector.

In 2011, municipalities got a large boost in the war against blight with the Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act.

The act specified actions that can be taken against property owners whose property is in serious code violation or is determined to be a public nuisance, including the option to seek court judgments against the owners’ assets that could result in the loss of the property and allows out-of-state owners to be extradited for prosecution. It also made way for habitual offenders to face criminal charges.

The city has already set in place the procedure wherein police will be instructed to filed charges against such property owners.

“There’s definite progress being made” to make landowners accountable for the properties, said Davis. “It’s the start of much more to come.”

Linda Metz has been with the Observer-Reporter since 2000, covering Washington County courts and politics, as well as the city of Washington. She previously was employed by the Tribune Review. She is a graduate of Point Park College, now a university, in Pittsburgh.

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