Battling Blight Through the Westmoreland Land Bank

Vacant properties are a problem throughout Westmoreland County. Throughout our core cities, small boroughs and large townships, 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 new 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 – county, municipality and school district – and the owners often are long gone, and have no assets anyway. Plus, the properties are usually worth next to nothing, so the private sector has no interest in them. Further, those tax-delinquent properties are bought on the cheap and often purchased by out-of-town investors who have no vested interest in the community, so these structures just sit there, often collapsing on themselves, and the problem simply perpetuates itself.

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.

The Land Bank works something like this…

Properties owing two years prior taxes go to tax sale. Since the value is so low on many, and the outstanding taxes and liens are so high, no one wants them. These unwanted properties eventually go to a judicial sale where bidders can purchase them very cheaply – sometimes, for only a few thousand dollars. Right now, there are more than 500 parcels in this category. Ultimately, because of their condition and undesirability they end up in the county’s repository of unsold properties where they further deteriorate and contribute nothing to the tax base. The Land Bank will have the ability to take ownership of these properties at any stage of the tax sale process, with the goal of redeveloping them.

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 needed, just like we all do with our personal bank accounts. Only here, we’re talking property instead of money. The Land Bank will work with the county’s Redevelopment Authority and our economic development agencies, local municipalities and private developers to make these areas attractive again. The possibilities are seemingly endless. These properties can ultimately be used as sideyards, new housing or for public uses, like parks, community facilities or stormwater control. Properly clustered properties hold great potential for new commercial development.

Our proposed Land Bank is the result of a new state law, passed last year so there are rules that we need play by. First and foremost, our Land Bank will not have the power of eminent domain, so it cannot simply take property. Second, 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 they will return to the tax rolls. Proceeds from the sales will fund the acquisition of other blighted properties.

Regarding property taxes, it is very important to note that the properties targeted by the Land Bank are not paying taxes right now, 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 it must be purposeful planning. The acquisitions will be targeted consistent with a community redevelopment plan.

The goals here are long term. The Land Bank is not designed to “flip” properties like one of these 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.

We are now finalizing a county ordinance that will create the Land Bank and set forth its governance. Our Redevelopment Authority is finalizing the operating plan. The goal is to have it done this fall. Like any new effort, of course, it will start small. We expect that 6-7 communities will sign on to the initial pilot phase, with a local financial contribution as well to help cover the costs of the initial property acquisitions.

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 your childhood friend once lived – imagine the potential. Our Land Bank holds the key to unlocking those possibilities.