Luzerne County seeking input on new blight committee

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | May 5th, 2016 7:15 pm

Luzerne County Councilman Harry Haas is urging municipal leaders to weigh in on the proposed formation of a new county committee to publicly identify vacant blighted properties and seek corrective action.

Similar committees have been established in several other Pennsylvania counties.

A public hearing will be held after county council’s 6 p.m. voting meeting Tuesday at the county courthouse in Wilkes-Barre. The hearing is required before the council votes on an ordinance creating the committee.

Haas, who chairs the council legislative committee that introduced the ordinance, emailed a letter to municipal leaders Thursday inviting them to attend the hearing or send him feedback.

“I know that you, like me, hear many concerns from your residents regarding vacant properties. Several counties have implemented successful programs, and in order for this tool to successfully meet your community’s needs, we ask for your specific feedback,” Haas wrote.

Haas said Thursday several municipal officials already have contacted him supporting the concept.

The committee would have authority to identify blighted properties in the county’s 72 boroughs and townships but not the four cities because they have their own redevelopment authorities.

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.

Under the ordinance, which may be amended before the council votes, properties could be deemed blighted for numerous reasons, including code violations that create a public nuisance, abandoned wells or other features that could attract children, unaddressed vermin infestations or a lack of operational or connected utilities, plumbing, heating or sewage systems.

Haas stressed the committee would not target occupied properties.

Pittston Redevelopment Authority Vice Chairman Michael Lombardo, who has extensively worked on blight issues in his area, recommended formation of the committee during last month’s legislative committee meeting.

The committee could bring blight “to the forefront” countywide and demonstrate it is a regional priority, which could lead to additional funding, he said.

“As we try to revitalize and grow our older communities, some of these small municipalities just don’t have the capacity or the staff to do it. I think if there’s some place that could be a sort of a base this would work,” Lombardo told the committee.

County Planning/Zoning Director James Ferry also spoke in support of the ordinance at the committee meeting, saying it would provide an additional tool to address problem properties. However, he cautioned government funding to demolish or rehabilitate blighted properties will never meet the demand.

“The fact is that there are so many vacant properties that qualify for the blighted definition throughout the county in all these municipalities, you will never get to a point where we have them all identified and are able to do something about them because there’s not ever going to be the budgetary” resources, he said.

Some have proposed county community development funding as a possible resource for the redevelopment authority, but that option hasn’t been publicly discussed.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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