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By Ted Kopas, Westmoreland County Commissioner
Vacant properties are a problem throughout Westmoreland County.Abandoned and tax-foreclosed properties threaten public health and safety, hurt property values and strain municipal budgets. County government has been limited in its ability to help. That's about to change with the advent of the Westmoreland County Land Bank.
We've all driven past those often-dilapidated properties and wondered aloud, “Why doesn't someone do something about that?” The solution, however, is not always simple.
Taxes are owed at every local level, the properties are worth next to nothing, and the owners often are long gone. These properties are regularly purchased by out-of-town investors who have no vested interest in the community, so these structures just sit there, often collapsing on themselves.
The Westmoreland Land Bank offers hope to change that cycle. The strategy rethinks the value and potential of vacant and abandoned properties — approaching them as assets rather than a disposable commodity — with the goal of combating blight and returning investment to our neighborhoods.
Control of these blighted sites is the key, and it's called a “bank” for a reason — to build assets and prepare for when they are needed. The Land Bank will work with local municipalities, private developers and economic development agencies to make these areas attractive again.
The possibilities are seemingly endless. These properties can ultimately be used as side yards, for new housing or for public uses, like parks, community facilities or stormwater control. Properly clustered properties hold great potential for new commercial development.
Our Land Bank will not have the power of eminent domain, so it cannot simply take property. Also, the Land Bank cannot extinguish local taxes or municipal liens without the approval of the local taxing authorities.
Properties held by the Land Bank will be exempt from all property taxes until they are sold, but in order to have this tax exemption the local municipality and school district must approve of it. Once sold from the Land Bank, the properties will return to the tax rolls. Proceeds from the sales will fund the acquisition of other blighted properties.
It is very important to note that right now no taxes are being paid on the properties targeted by the Land Bank, so this will have no impact on municipal or school budgets. Also, the goal of the Land Bank is not to simply acquire every property. For this concept to work there must be purposeful planning. The acquisitions will be targeted consistent with a community redevelopment plan.
We are now finalizing a county ordinance that will create the Land Bank and set forth its governance. The goals are long term. The Land Bank is not designed to “flip” properties like one of those reality TV shows. Certain properties in certain areas may take longer than others, and, of course, success will be predicated in some way on market conditions, available financing and the overall economic climate.
So the next time you drive past that building in your area that has been crumbling for years — whether it's an abandoned hospital on Route 30, the former neighborhood grocery, or the home in which your childhood friend once lived — imagine the potential. Our Land Bank holds the key to unlocking those possibilities.