Front Porch Forum

Attendees at the Crawford County Planning Commission's Front Porch Forum discuss plans to tackle a wide range of housing issues affecting the county.

The Crawford County Planning Commission and Office brought local leaders and residents together to discuss findings and strategies for their proposed housing plan.

The commission hosted a Front Porch Forum on Thursday at the county Public Safety building where folks shared their thoughts and ideas. The Planning Office provided two large posters with information from the housing plan broken down to inform and inspire conversation among the estimated 50 attendees.

The plan will soon be presented to the county commissioners for a vote following a 45-day public comment window. If adopted, it will serve as an amendment to the county's 2014 comprehensive plan, which is revisited and updated every 10 years.

The official housing plan, which looked at all 51 of Crawford County's municipalities, was a two-year effort with the help of a consultant, according to Planning Director Zachary Norwood. The plan breaks down the county into 14 submarkets such as Shenango or Cochranton, each of which comprise 20 pages of data and analysis on demographics, vacancy rates and specific findings for the areas.

Proposed strategies highlighted at the forum had several layers to tackle housing issues. One was the adoption of uniform countywide policies to track blighted properties, to encourage cooperation between municipalities on construction code enforcement and property maintenance and to determine common issues between communities to address them at the county level. Another was to retool zoning regulations to encourage more multi-family housing and foster commercial district and downtown redevelopment.

Other strategies considered addressing common blight and code enforcement, leveraging state and financial resources for things like financial aid for struggling homeowners and public-private partnerships to aid in home buying or rehabilitation costs and exploring tax incentive programs and examining tax inequities. 

The plan also included adding land banks to make it easier for interested buyers to purchase blighted, abandoned properties and return them to productive, tax-generating use. A land bank would allow the county or a specific municipality to acquire titles to such properties, eliminate the liabilities like back taxes and transfer the properties to new ownership.

As a part of the process, Norwood and his team from the county planning commission put together the forums, one in Titusville last Wednesday and one in Meadville, to engage residents in the process.

"A lot of times you get a format where someone speaks for half an hour or 45 minutes, and no one really pays attention after five," Norwood said. "This is a more informal way for folks to get their hands and minds wrapped around figures and the facts and the numbers and information — then to communicate with each other."

Norwood also said the plan focused "very intensely" on what planners and developers refer to as "the missing middle" — or affordable home options such as duplexes, bungalow courts and courtyard apartments that fall between detached single family homes and mid-rise apartment buildings. The "missing" element stems from the fact that such options have faced serious zoning hurdles around the county.

"That first starter home, that one-bedroom or two-bedroom unit or that ranch unit if you’re looking to become an empty-nester, we really lack in that affordable housing bloc," Norwood said. "A large part of the plan was looking at the market rate and where the market stands and getting some data in people’s hands to make decisions."

Commission Chair John Lawrence was enthusiastic with the turnout for the forum, but he didn't shy away from the housing challenges facing the county.

"We do have a declining population," Lawrence said. "That leads to vacancies. It leads to bigger houses for families that the families aren’t here to move into."

Lawrence noted the Pine Street Commons Active Living apartment complex being built across the street from the public safety building as a positive. It's also as a reminder that seniors represent a growing number of the county population.

Thomas Gilbertson, the county assistant planning director for community planning, created the posters that brought several countywide shifts into perspective with colorful graphics and pictures to tell a mostly sobering story.

"The plan can’t be something that sits on the shelf afterwards, especially for an issue as significant as this one," Gilbertson said. "Crawford County is getting hit with significant trends, demographic trends, economic trends, and all of these are going to have major implications for housing."

Gilbertson discussed the opportunities afforded local governments in Pennsylvania to tackle housing issues from a broad range of vantage points such as enforcement, incentives or improvement-based strategies.

"If you start small and incrementally, you can prevent from having to implement some of the more heavy-handed strategies that might sometimes be necessary," Gilbertson said. "The most important thing right now is to hear from people.

"We really need to find out where the consensus is and the low-hanging fruit to figure out how we’re going to start. The improvements are not going to happen instantly. It’s going to have to happen incrementally and through consistent follow-up."

While the posters flanked the sides of the room, more information was provided on a rotating slideshow, and sticky notes were made available for attendees to write what they thought were important aspects to focus on regarding housing.

Some of the suggestions from the public included rental inspections, programs for first-time and low-income families, farm preservation, incentive programs to buy homes in blighted areas and the need to address tax inequities between cities, boroughs and townships.

Lisbet Searle-White of Meadville, who attended the forum, hoped the plan would include a focus on lowering taxes and prioritizing energy efficiency to reduce costs and increase safety when remodeling older buildings.

"I think the plan is very comprehensive, very well-written," Searle-White said. "A lot of attention went into explaining some complex subjects with straightforward language and clever infographics. I think we got our work cut out for us, but I think it was money well spent. But now we need to invest in our town."

Tyler Dague can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at tdague@meadvilletribune.com.

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