Cities want in on Luzerne County blighted property database

By Jennifer Learn-Andes -
The Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre -

Luzerne County’s four cities should be part of a planned database of abandoned, eyesore properties, a Pittston official says.

County officials have been operating under the belief the cities — Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Nanticoke and Pittston — can’t participate in the program by law because they have their own redevelopment authorities to address blight.

In a recent email, Pittston Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Joseph Chacke maintained that continued assertion is false.

“Quite frankly, I’m tired of seeing it,” Chacke wrote. “The cities probably have the greatest problems with blight in the county but are ignored for help.”

Chacke said he has discussed the issue with several county redevelopment authority executive directors, and they were unaware of any law prohibiting city inclusion in a database.

The overseer of a county redevelopment authority in southwestern Pennsylvania said his authority regularly completes projects in his county’s cities, Chacke said.

While the Urban Redevelopment Law says a county redevelopment authority’s “field of operation” shall not include a city with a redevelopment authority, cooperative agreements allowing joint projects are permissible, Chacke said.

“The county has made a policy decision to exclude the cities, and citing a law that doesn’t exist isn’t fair to the cities,” Chacke wrote, indicating he has shared his concerns with county Councilman Harry Haas and other county officials.

Haas ‘all ears’

Haas, who chairs the county committee that will compile the database, said the law seemed clear that cities are excluded, but he is “all ears” if there’s a feasible way to include them.

“I was sad when I first realized the cities were not allowed to participate,” Haas said. “As long as we follow the statute, I’m happy to help anyone.”

However, Haas said he does not want to hold up proposed plans to accept county redevelopment authority funding so the committee can start accepting nominations of blighted properties from officials in the 72 boroughs and townships.

Kaitlyn Twigger, the assistant county solicitor assigned to the committee, said Monday nobody has informed her of city interest in participating or asked her to perform legal research on the possibility.

County Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Andrew Reilly said cities may be legally permitted to enter into agreements with the committee to participate, but the cities also may be expected to contribute to the cost.

Under the arrangement up for council discussion Tuesday, the county Redevelopment Authority would reimburse the county up to $15,000 this year for furnishing legal and administrative services to the committee for its work in the 72 municipalities.

Once the database is completed, it would be up to the county redevelopment authority to pursue and find funding for demolition or other remediation.

Berks precedent

Reilly said the county authority has limited resources and likely would forward resolution of any city database properties to the cities if they are included. The county’s format was modeled largely after one in Berks County, where the city of Reading has its own blighted property committee while the remaining municipalities are covered by a county committee, he said.

Hazleton Mayor Jeff Cusat said cities should be invited to discuss possible costs and benefits of participating in the database.

“The problem I have is why we’re not even considered. Our tax base contributes a lot,” said Cusat, who is still upset over a new $5 countywide vehicle registration fee to fund county-owned road and bridge repairs, even though there is no such infrastructure within city limits.

Wilkes-Barre officials also have been interested in participating in a countywide blight initiative, said city Administrator Ted Wampole.

“The city has as much of a problem with blight as the others,” Wampole said.

A Nanticoke representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

County council is set to vote Tuesday on an ordinance allowing the county redevelopment authority to reimburse the committee for staff instead of providing its own. An agreement with the authority and budget amendment also must be approved by council at future meetings before the committee is free to proceed.

The blight committee met at the courthouse Monday and discussed plans to hold a workshop in September explaining the property information and other documentation required from municipalities.

The owners of properties recommended for database inclusion will have opportunities to challenge the action or address deficiencies.

Vacant properties could be declared blighted and placed in the database for numerous reasons, including public nuisance code violations, safety problems that may attract and endanger children, unaddressed vermin infestations or broken or disconnected utilities, plumbing, heating or sewage systems.

The Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

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

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