WILKES-BARRE — After years of living across from a raccoon- and rat-infested eyesore, Taft Street resident Jim Burden finally had a glimmer of hope.
The condemned residential structure he’s forced to face every day had been placed on the city’s planned demolition list, and city officials recently submitted a request seeking state approval to use community development funding for the tear-down.
But now those plans are halted because the property is changing hands.
Taxing bodies have agreed to sell the property to a limited liability company in New York City for $500. The property was in Luzerne County’s tax claim repository, a pool of more than 1,000 structures and land slivers that are up for grabs cheap because nobody wanted them in past tax auctions.
Weston Milligan submitted the bid to acquire the property on behalf of GBLDNC, LLC, county records show. A man at the phone number provided on the bid sheet declined to identify himself or discuss his plans for the property Thursday.
“I don’t have anything to say about it,” he said.
Burden said the house is loaded with animal feces, has a caved-in second floor and is structurally unsound, in part due to years of leaks and a busted water pipe. The 0.02-acre lot would be too small to fit a new structure with setback requirements if the house is demolished, he said.
“There’s no way it can be fixed up. It needs to be ripped down,” said Burden, who has lived on the street most of his life and resides in a home that had belonged to his grandparents.
“We’ve been dealing with this place the last 15 to 20 years.”
City official in the dark
Wilkes-Barre Administrator Greg Barrouk said he would have attempted to stop the repository sale due to the planned demolition if he had been alerted.
The Luzerne County Council approved the sale Tuesday, but the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board and Wilkes-Barre city also were notified and had the opportunity to object, according to Northeast Revenue Service, LLC, which operates the county’s tax claim office.
Northeast Revenue sent certified letters to both the school district and city on Feb. 1 about the proposed sale.
The letter instructed these taxing bodies to contact Northeast Revenue associate counsel Dyan E. Dinstel within 45 days if there were objections to the sale.
“In the event that we do not hear from you, we will assume that you have no objections,” the letter said.
The school board approved the sale in March, and no objections were raised by the city, records show.
The certified letter was accepted by a city employee who processes mail. Barrouk was in the process of researching which employee reviewed it and will consult with city solicitors to determine who should be approving proposed repository sales on the city’s behalf in the future.
County council members have been receptive to repository sales because the county’s pool of limbo properties is significantly larger than those in the 11 other similarly sized third-class counties in Pennsylvania, records show.
The county is liable for repository properties while the owners of record have abandoned them and stopped paying real estate taxes, officials said. The council approved 87 repository sales last year and 25 this year to date.
The county council members check to verify repository buyers don’t owe taxes on other properties in the county, but they may be on shaky legal ground rejecting prospective bids based on a concern that the new buyer won’t rehabilitate a property.
History of problems
Herbert Pyle, formerly of Plymouth, owned the Taft Street property and stopped paying taxes in 2009, county records show.
He has no connection to Herbert Pyle of Hanover Township, a military veteran who pays his real estate taxes and said he has been haunted by calls from collection agencies seeking the same-named man he never met.
The tax-delinquent Pyle could not be reached for comment Thursday.
His former neighbors say he was evicted from his Plymouth rental property several years ago, leaving behind more than 100 cats and kittens.
Pyle also had owned an apartment building in Shickshinny that was known as the “cheese house” due to its wedge shape. Authorities condemned the building in the late 1990s after discovering 10 dogs living among garbage and feces and dozens of rats pouring out of holes in the property.
Pyle had told a borough code enforcement officer he was raising rats, which was why they were different colors. He had purchased the property in a 1997 tax sale for $2,600.
He also bought the Taft Street property in a 2004 tax sale for $8,500 in August 2004.
Burden said he tried to buy the property at that tax sale but dropped out in an ensuing bidding war because the escalating price was not feasible when the cost of required rehabilitation was factored in.
“It could have been saved at that point, but the guy who bought it did nothing with the place,” said Burden, who worries the raccoons coming in and out of the nearby house are rabid.
He said two representatives of a government agency once approached the building to broach removal of the raccoons, but they refused to enter the structure once they saw the conditions inside.
Wilkes-Barre Operations Director Butch Frati released a report on a string of code and health violations in recent years for high grass and weeds, structural problems allowing birds and rodents to access the building and a crumbling roof with shingles falling in the street.
There’s a 2014 complaint about a raccoon attacking Burden’s dog and a notation of seven adult raccoons and up to 10 raccoon pups inside the structure.
Barrouk said city officials will immediately contact the new owner with notification of problems that must be addressed.
The new buyer deposited $500 plus a $100 fee to cover tax claim processing. Northeast Revenue will record the deed when the transfer tax is paid.
If the problems are not addressed, the city must submit a new state application seeking approval to use community development funding for demolition, said Joe Rodano, the city’s community support director and community development environmental review officer.
The city places liens on properties when government funding is used for demolition to force owners to repay the debt if they want to sell the cleared lot, Rodano said.
Money isn’t available to fund all demolitions sought by residents frustrated with blight, and the city must undergo an exhaustive legal and review process to ensure the rights of property owners are not violated, Rodano said.
He estimated there are hundreds of vacant properties when empty rental units are included.
“We’re out there every week boarding up vacant properties. We do the best we can,” Rodano said. “I’d like to see them get into the right hands and fixed up and rehabbed so we can keep these properties standing.”