Municipalities in Allegheny, Westmoreland counties find ways to fight blight

It's a relic from the Cold War that has found a new life and purpose.The former Nike missile site in West Deer, designed to protect the Pittsburgh region from a possible Soviet attack on the many industrial sites of the time, has been converted into a...

Municipalities in Allegheny, Westmoreland counties find ways to fight blight

It's a relic from the Cold War that has found a new life and purpose.

The former Nike missile site in West Deer, designed to protect the Pittsburgh region from a possible Soviet attack on the many industrial sites of the time, has been converted into a recreation area.

“The site was conveyed to the township in 1976 to be used only for recreational purposes,” said Daniel Mator, manager of the township in Allegheny County. “We have a senior citizens center, a youth football field, two soccer fields and a lacrosse field.”

What West Deer has done with the area that once housed guided surface-to-air missiles is an example of how municipalities are taking unused land and converting it to other uses.

A more perplexing problem is what to do with abandoned property once used for residences or businesses that is still privately owned.

Many communities in Westmoreland County overall are handcuffed after removing blighted structures.

“The problem is, the property owner of record still has it,” said Charles Dizard, a Harrison Township commissioner who has designed a policy to fight blight. “We put the costs of demolition and maintenance, like cutting grass, on the lien. But short of a sheriff's sale, there's nothing the township can do.”

Harrison demolishes as many dilapidated and abandoned buildings as its budget will allow but still doesn't own the property.

“We have a vacant side lot program,” Dizard said. “The adjacent property owner can fill out an application with Allegheny County and buy it.”

In Westmoreland County, a success story on redeveloping vacant lots has been unfolding.

Through a countywide land bank that was started in 2014, the county acquires properties through sheriff's sales, then searches for a new owner to put the property back on the tax rolls.

“We have acquired both residential and commercial lots,” said April Kopas, executive director of the land bank and the Westmoreland County Redevelopment Authority. “We specialize in working with the municipality to determine the scope of work needed to get these properties improved.”

The land bank determines whether an abandoned building can be renovated or if it should be demolished.

As of mid-January, the land bank has acquired 54 lots via sheriff's sales; 26 have been sold.

“Most of the properties we buy are between 10,000 and 20,000 square feet,” Kopas said.

The biggest abandoned property is the former Monsour Medical Center site in Jeannette.

The former hospital, a Route 30 landmark with its round tower, and adjacent buildings that once housed a 283-bed hospital were purchased in a 2014 judicial sale for $15,000. The buildings were demolished in early 2016.

“There are actually five parcels of land there,” Kopas said. The land bank already has requested proposals from developers for the parcels.

There are 20 Westmoreland municipalities that belong to the land bank. As time goes on, the land bank wants to reposition the properties and get the member communities to further embrace the bank's goals.

“We want to also form partnerships with Realtors and developers,” Kopas said. “A land bank isn't supposed to bank the land — we want to get the land taxable and productive.”

George Guido is a contributing writer.

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