Blight

Meadville City Council voted unanimously on Oct. 1 to ratify seizure of the 590 Park Ave. house for conservatorship.

Meadville City Council’s plan to address blighted properties goes far beyond seizing a Park Avenue home and fixing up the exterior.

The $40,000 council expects to take from its general fund and use to fix up 590 Park Ave. would not go back into the general fund once the home is sold but to be kept separate to fix other blighted houses, according to court documents filed by the city.

Council voted unanimously on Oct. 1 to ratify seizure of the Park Avenue house for conservatorship. Under the plan, the city will do everything needed to bring the exterior of the house up to current codes and regulations. The current owners of the property could reimburse the city for the work. If the owners choose not to do this, the city is free to sell the property. The city would be paid back through the proceeds of the sale. If the sale of the property generates any money above and beyond what the city spent to fix it up, that money would go to the property’s owners. Throughout the process, the property’s owners, not the city, will be responsible for paying property taxes.

This will be the first time conservatorship has been attempted in Crawford County.

“This is a learning curve,” Councilman John Battaglia said.

City attorney Gary Alizzeo filed the conservatorship petition with the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas on Sept. 18. The court sent it back and requested more documentation, so Alizzeo submitted an amended petition on Oct. 1. Alizzeo said the law requires a hearing be scheduled within 120 days of filing the petition.

The Park Avenue house has been on the city’s radar since 2010. When council was presented by the city’s staff with a list of the 15 most blighted properties in Meadville in September 2013, 590 Park Ave. was among the 15.

Battaglia, who is a builder, performed at no cost an estimate on the work needed to bring 590 Park Ave. unto compliance with codes and regulations governing the exterior of the structure. The city does not have access to the inside of the building, so its condition is unknown, and the city plans only to fix up the exterior of the house.

Battaglia has told council in the past it had to get “nasty” about blight to show how serious council was in fighting blight. “Council has been like a paper tiger,” Battaglia said, explaining that it had not pushed for aggressive enforcement of blight-related laws.

Conservatorship is covered in Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act and the Abandoned and Blighted Conservatorship Act passed in 2008. The state’s Blighted and Abandoned Property Conservatorship Act of 2008 allows a court-appointed third party to take control of blighted property when the owner refuses to act. Conservatorship is different from eminent domain, where the government may seize property but must pay fair market value.

Battaglia said eminent domain wasn’t used in this case because he wasn’t sure if the property qualified, and conservatorship keeps it on the tax rolls.

The house at 590 Park Ave. has been boarded up since being damaged by a fire on July 12, 2012, and it currently has wall and roof damage that leave the structure open to the elements, according to court documents filed by the city. The city paid contractors $590 to board the property and billed the owners at the time, Daniel and Carol Thomas of Greensburg. The Thomases sold the house to Sam and Wendy Enterline in October 2012. The Enterlines don’t have the funds to fix up the home’s exterior to comply with codes at this time. The Enterlines have retained legal counsel.

Bringing the property up to exterior code compliant doesn’t necessarily make it habitable, said Gary Johnson, the city’s zoning officer and assistant city manager.

Interim City Manager Andy Walker said he knows of no legislative cap on how many taxpayer dollars may be spent fixing the property. Based on Battaglia’s estimates, a preliminary budget of $40,000 was outlined in the city’s court filing. 

The city’s petition to the Crawford County Court of Common Pleas requests the Redevelopment Authority of the City of Meadville be named as conservator of the property, though the city will provide the repair funding. If this is approved by the court, bids will be requested for repairing the house because the authority doesn’t have its own construction crews, Walker said. 

Repairs will be limited to the roof, sidewalks, porch, windows and doors. Walker said crews will not install new kitchens or perform other interior work.

“It’s from an exterior blight perspective,” Walker said.

But all that will happen only if the court gives its approval, and “It’s definitely not a lock the city is going to get it,” Alizzeo said.

Meadville Mayor Chris Soff said council didn’t reach the decision lightly to take conservatorship of the property.

Councilman LeRoy Stearns said he had some questions before taking this step. Stearns said he wanted Alizzeo to research the matter and get the petition ready if it was legal.

“I questioned the fact if we could do it,” Stearns said.

Councilman Bob Langley said the public has expressed an interest in having blight properties cleaned up. Conservatorship is another step available to the city in combating blight.

“We have to start somewhere — you can’t ignore it,” Langley said.

Langley said when the presentation was made and the city’s blighted properties were listed publicly by council last year, some of the owners started fixing the houses.

“It’s part of the human condition,” Langley said. “If you’re not forced to do something, you won’t.”

Johnson said there are three criteria a property must meet prior to being seized from the owner for conservatorship. The property must not have been lived in during the prior year, couldn’t have been actively marketed for sale within the last 60 days and has to have been owned by the current owners longer than six months. The house at 590 Park Ave. meets all three criteria, Johnson said.

Earl Corp can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at ecorp@meadvilletribune.com.

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