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Bank on it: Somerset County considers land project to deal with blight

November 24, 2018

The Somerset County Redevelopment Authority is working toward establishing a land bank to help bring more properties back on the tax rolls.

Legislation introduced by state Sen. Pat Stefano in the 2017-18 session allows redevelopment authorities to also serve as land banks.

Land banks are a tool that municipalities may use to facilitate the return of vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties to productive use. The biggest difference between a land bank and work that the redevelopment authority already does, is while some of the authority’s projects have to follow guidelines based on the grant funding they use for the project, the land bank does not have those restrictions.

“Land bank activities are separate from redevelopment authority, even though they will be done through redevelopment,” Steve Spochart, redevelopment authority executive director, said.

Spochart said that a land bank will also allow the authority to expedite title proceedings, which is often an issue with abandoned properties. They can also enter into an agreement with tax claims ahead of tax sales.

He said that land banks receive funding through agreements with taxing bodies for future tax revenues. Simply put, by getting properties on the tax rolls, municipalities share tax revenue with the land bank for a predetermined amount of time.

“Whether we rehab it, demo it, sell it or whatever to get it back on the tax rolls, future tax revenue will go into that pot,” he said.

Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk stressed that there will be a set point when the municipality would collect the entire tax amount.

Spochart said that when Westmoreland County started its land bank, officials there targeted municipalities to help with seed money.

“In their case that was nice, in our case that is not going to work,” he said.

Spochart said that to start the fund they will work on projects they can fund through grants. Once the land is back on the tax rolls, income from tax sharing will be used.

“It is more flexible,” he said. “As the land bank pot builds to a point where, yes, we can kind of be more creative.”

Spochart said that municipalities would not have to participate.

“Even though it blankets the county, the commissioners are not forcing any municipality to participate,” he said. “We will look at it case-by-case, property-by-property, taxing body-by-taxing body to be able to do these types of activities within the respective jurisdiction.”

Vatavuk said blighted properties are one of the biggest complaints the commissioners hear.

“Tons of them,” he said. “The phone rings off the hook. If this is something we can do to deal with these blighted properties it would be great for the county and great for the neighborhoods.”

The commissioners are set to adopt the ordinance during their meeting on Tuesday.

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