On the blighted road to ruins

June 16, 2014
Charleroi Borough Manager Donn Henderson removes a cinder block that fell onto the sidewalk from this dilapidated home on Lookout Avenue Friday. - Mike Jones / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

One year ago today, pieces of a window dormer atop a condemned North Main Street building began to crumble, prompting Washington firefighters to close the street below to assess damage and potential danger.

Even though city officials signed an emergency demolition order for the dilapidated building at 132-138 N. Main St. immediately after the June 17, 2013, incident, finding the property owners and getting them to pay to raze the condemned structure has been a lengthy ordeal.

In fact, the building remains standing in disrepair a year later with no resolution in sight.

The situation with the North Main Street property owned by Washington Real Estate Services Inc. is just one example of nearly 75 “delinquent” properties in the city and countless other condemned buildings across Washington County. The delinquent taxes on the properties and expensive building rehabilitation needed typically make them losing investments for interested buyers.

“It’s a financial burden a lot of investors are just not willing to take on,” Washington Mayor Brenda Davis said.

And the battle between local governments and the property owners on who should pay for the demolition ultimately leaves the buildings sitting in limbo and in disrepair.

It’s a Catch-22 that allows buildings to languish and become pockmarks in places that local leaders want to redevelop.

Buyer beware

Old and rundown buildings are not a new phenomenon, but the age of the Internet has given scammers the opportunity to easily sell dilapidated properties to out-of-state buyers who think they’re getting a deal.

One example of that is in Charleroi, where a woman from New York state thought she was getting an excellent investment opportunity from someone she had befriended online. The scammer bought the house at 403 Lookout Ave. for $2,500 at a sheriff’s sale and immediately sold it to Marie Germain for $10,000, who bought the property sight unseen. When Germain arrived to look at the property after the purchase, she learned from borough officials the house was in disrepair and needed to be brought up to code.

“Unlike most people who buy these houses, she actually came (to fix it), so we’re trying to work with her on this,” Charleroi Borough Manager Donn Henderson said. “These people have enough money to buy them, but then when they realize we’ll make them adhere to code, they usually walk away from it.”

Henderson said the scammer quickly disappeared, but Germain made some attempts to repair the outdoor stairs that lead to the front door. He wonders if she’ll eventually walk away from the property as costs to fix it mount.

The New York woman’s dilemma is just one of many online sales that go sour, Henderson said. In fact, they’ve noticed buyers from as far away as China and Russia who think they’re getting a great investment deal. Instead, Henderson and his office often have to send code-compliance letters to the new buyers overseas with little expectation of ever receiving a response.

“It’s a gradual divestment of the community,” Henderson said. “I think the Internet is a lot to blame for it.”

Costly demolitions and taxes

The decision for towns to absorb the high cost to demolish a condemned building is a difficult one. It should be the responsibility of the property owner, but some local officials decide they need to spend public money to remove the blight.

Donora officials bought a backhoe to demolish properties rather than outsource the costly work to contractors.

Meanwhile, Henderson said his borough spent $59,000 last year to demolish the old Columbus Hotel on McKean Avenue in the heart of the town’s business district. The borough has put a hefty lien on the property, meaning a new buyer would have to pay up for the prime location. Henderson said they’ve also budgeted to spend $90,000 this year to raze a dozen of the 20 condemned homes on their list. However, it’s money that they would prefer to use to improve other buildings in town.

“It comes out of money that could be used to redevelop the borough for other things,” Henderson said. “We could be enhancing houses instead.”

When the property is rolled into a corporation or trust, the holder is usually hard to find and can often easily change the organization’s name or address.

That was the case with the condemned North Main Street property owned by Washington Real Estate Services Inc. County Recorder of Deeds Debbie Bardella found paperwork that shows John Zawacki of Buffalo Township as the trust’s president, but his lawyer, Jim Jeffries, said he was separated from it more than two years ago. The company was put into the possession of Lynn Watson, who could not be located for comment. Jefferies did not know why the proper paperwork was not filed with the recorder of deeds to inform them of the changes.

“That’s always been our issue here,” Bardella said. “These trusts are supposed to be filed and they’re not. We’re just chasing air because I can’t get to these people.”

Local communities can use a “private asset attachment” to record dangerous violations and seize money or property from negligent property owners after six months. However, many of the owners make minor name or address changes before the six-month deadline, which restarts the filing clock.

“That’s the constant battle we face,” Davis said. “There needs to be more accountability when transferring deeds.”

Finding a solution

There are no easy answers, but local communities and Washington County are searching for solutions.

Davis said they’re willing to forgive the taxes if a new investor has legitimate plans to redevelop a property. In some cases, those back taxes can top $100,000 among the city, school district and county, making it a nonstarter to any buyer.

“It’s more attractive if you don’t have the baggage that comes with it,” Davis said.

But the county does not have a uniform mechanism to forgive unpaid taxes. That’s why there are preliminary discussions of utilizing “land banks” in some communities to package land and allow properties to be sold to investors who are interested in redevelopment. It also would give local municipalities more power in selecting how the properties would be used in the future.

That’s what Davis hopes will come from the property at 96 N. Main St. that was owned by former district attorney John Pettit, who died in 2010. The property was left to the city by Pettit’s estate, Davis said, and they hope to funnel it into the City Development Corp. to eventually sell the property and get it back on the tax rolls.

That option doesn’t appear as likely for the other North Main Street property a block away that remains standing, albeit in disrepair. Davis says the state’s new Act 90 legislation that allows for land banks will be an option, although it still will be expensive for the city to rebuild it into a viable location.

“The other option is for the property owner to take responsibility. They need to do that,” Davis said. “Otherwise, we’ll go after them with the tools now available to us.”

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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