Luzerne County officials consider new committee to target blight

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | March 27th, 2016 9:42 pm

A new Luzerne County committee may be formed to publicly identify vacant blighted properties and push for corrective action.

County Council’s Legislative Committee last week discussed a proposed ordinance to form a five-person “blighted property review committee” modeled after one in Berks County.

A crackdown on blight is warranted because property degradation is “tough on communities,” said Harry Haas, a county councilman who chairs the legislative committee.

“It’s real troublesome because the average citizen looks at these properties, and they think, ‘What’s being done? What can be done?’” Haas said last week. “They feel helpless that they’ve got vagabonds and they’ve got people doing drugs in certain properties, and it’s a real sore upon the neighborhood.”

The committee would have authority to identify blighted properties in county boroughs and townships but not cities, Haas said.

“We’re looking at smaller municipalities that don’t have their own wherewithal,” Haas said.

Properties the committee deems blighted would be posted, although property owners would have the right to appeal. The committee has authority to work with property owners on remediation.

If property owners refuse to comply with remediation, the committee would report the blighted properties to the county Redevelopment Authority for its consideration of further action. County redevelopment authorities have legal enforcement authority over blighted property, including seizure through eminent domain, officials said.

The Redevelopment Authority wasn’t involved in last week’s legislative committee meeting and may question its ability to handle and fund the additional work with its limited resources.

Berks County officials created that county’s blighted property review committee in 2015 based on successes with similar committees in Cumberland County and the city of Reading, according to published reports.

Municipalities are encouraged to refer blighted properties to the Berks County committee, particularly when municipalities are facing condemnation of properties after exhausting all efforts to force owners to comply with remediation, reports said.

Haas said a committee here would draw more attention to blight.

“What I like about this is that it opens up the door for communication with the leadership in the townships and municipalities to get their ears and eyes out there in the community” to address blight, he said.

County assistant Solicitor Shannon Crake stressed the ordinance would address only vacant properties.

“It’s not looking at taking away a house someone resides in,” she said.

The committee would include a county council member, the county manager or his/her designee and three people appointed by the county council: a county resident and representatives of both the county Redevelopment Authority and county Planning Commission, the proposed ordinance says.

State law requires properties to meet specific conditions to be certified as blighted by committees. This list includes properties that are a public nuisance, pose a danger to children, lack utilities, contain an accumulation of trash or are vermin-infested.

A majority of the 11-member council must approve the ordinance for the committee to be formed. Haas told his council colleagues he will discuss the proposal in further detail at a council meeting next month.

Haas credited citizen Mark Rabo with proposing the committee idea.

Rabo said Sunday the committee would fill a void by providing municipalities with new options to legally address eyesores. He said he’s been struggling with blight in his own Hazleton neighborhood.

“Based on the research I’ve done over the last five years, property values decrease when there are blighted properties in an area,” Rabo said. “This problem isn’t going to go away just by wishing it away.”

Luzerne County Councilman Harry Haas speaks at a council meeting on Nov. 22. Haas supports forming a ‘blighted property review committee’ to identify dilapidated properties in the county. County Councilman Harry Haas speaks at a council meeting on Nov. 22. Haas supports forming a ‘blighted property review committee’ to identify dilapidated properties in the county.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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