By Mary Spicer
“I drive around the city and see houses that have been boarded for all my natural life,” Mayor Christopher Soff said. “That cannot be allowed to continue.”
Blight was on the agenda for Meadville City Council’s monthly meeting Wednesday night, but the 16 residences singled out for initial council attention by a six-member group of city officials are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Asked how many properties warranted some sort of attention on the part of council, “There are a lot — maybe 200,” replied Gary Alizzeo, the city’s attorney. “They’re not all in this bad shape, but 50 would fall under the ‘blight’ definition.”
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “a structure is blighted when it exhibits objectively determinable signs of deterioration sufficient to constitute a threat to human health, safety and public welfare.” At the direction of council, the list was developed using the HUD definition of blight.
As to what comes next, “Each case is unique,” Alizzeo said. “This is going to cost money — council will have to allocate funds.”
“There will be substantial legal research,” City Manager Joe Chriest agreed, noting that pursuing a serious blight-reduction program will be both time-consuming and costly.
Although it was uncertain whether all the properties highlighted Wednesday should be included or if perhaps five suitable candidates should be selected for the preliminary go-around, council gave the go-ahead to Assistant City Manager Andy Walker to start developing a strategy for chipping away at the list and instructed him to bring the plan to council for further consideration.
Funding for the program, however, remains uncertain.
“I don’t know where the money will come from,” Soff told the Tribune after the meeting. “Part of what they will come to us with next will be an estimate of the cost.” Soff added that if Chriest and Finance Director Tim Groves haven’t included funding in the city’s 2014 budget when the first draft is presented in November, council might direct the budget to be amended to include blight reduction.
Every structure has a story
Property-owner Joe Labruzzo, owner of two properties on the list, was the first to address council during the public comment period preceding the presentation.
“You buy properties when they become right — and then you sit on them until it comes time to remodel,” he said, noting that several properties he currently owns had been condemned before he purchased and remodeled them. “The house at Willow and Water will be on that list.”
When he purchased the house at 1145 Water St., “people were living in there with no running water and no furnace,” he said. The tenants were immediately evicted, he continued, and his original plan was to knock it down. However, upon examination he discovered that both that house and the one next door, which he also purchased, were both salvageable. While work has already begun on the foundation at 1145 Water St., “It’s on my agenda for spring,” Labruzzo said.
A high-visibility location was one of the criteria for selecting houses for the list, which includes structures at a main gateway to the city as well as structures near schools, parks and businesses. Two of the chosen structures are on Water Street near the North Street intersection, directly across from Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s North Street Improvement Project.
Clearly visible from the intersection, the long-vacant house at 798 Water St. was described as an “attractive nuisance” because people specifically go there to dump things. “It has been boarded since before most of you were born,” Councilmember LeRoy Stearns said.
“Each one is a unique situation,” Walker said. “Each one will require a unique strategy.”
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.