2012-03-10 / Viewpoints

New law helps rural communities

ROBERT HOOFTALLEN, PUBLISHER ROBERT HOOFTALLEN, PUBLISHER I ran for borough council my first time in 1999.

I was compelled to run for office by what I saw as the biggest problem my municipality faced— the growing number of neglected, unsightly and unsafe properties.

Call them by whatever moniker you like —blighted properties, junked properties, nuisance properties— they are the single biggest threat to the future of small municipalities.

Our small boroughs and townships are unique places in which to live. Most often, it is what small municipalities lack that attracts the people who live there.

But the lack of those things— big business, chain stores, factories, etc.— is also a limiting factor for small municipalities which struggle to provide services to their residents without the significant tax revenue businesses and industries generate.

As a result, small, rural municipalities operate almost exclusively on tax revenue from residential property owners.

What attracts people to rural living is their desire for a quality of life that is not determined by wealth or status, but rather by a more organic environment that nurtures a sense of well-being with quiet, natural surroundings that are insulated from the sights and sounds of larger, urban areas.

And when people who are searching for those qualities in a community find them, they are happy to pay taxes to support them. But when those qualities are compromised, what other reasons do they have to stay?

And so it is easy to see why small towns like Austin are not only losing people, but are also failing to attract new residents.

Junked properties have a farther reaching affect than just what meets the eye. They devalue the municipality by:

• robbing the community of potential tax revenue by making it a less desirable place for new development.

• stealing equity from nearby residents whose property values are diminished by adjacent junked properties.

• demoralizing residents.

• sending a negative message about the community.

• impeding new development.

• posing a danger to the health and safety of residents, particularly neighborhood children.

Nearly every community has ordinances (local laws) outlawing such properties, but for a legion of reasons, it has been nearly impossible for small towns to eliminate them.

Thankfully, a new state law that took affect last April will help municipal leaders in their fight against blight.

In the past, owners have been able to walk away from properties that are condemned, leaving behind thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes and sewer and water bills. That revenue then must be made up through higher rates for each of the responsible residents.

Municipalities could put liens on the junked property, but that action had little to no affect on the owners, particularly when the properties were beyond repair.

Under the new law, municipalities have more weapons against junk property owners.

Act 90 gives local governments a way to get financial damages from a property owner, such as a landlord with multiple blight violations, by allowing liens against all of the owner’s assets — not just the blighted property. Thus, the individual or corporate owner who creates the mess, pays for cleaning it up— not the taxpayers!

Municipalities also are able to deny owners of blighted properties municipal permits and approvals for other properties they own anywhere in Pennsylvania until their blighted properties are brought up to code or demolished.

Also under the law, out-of state owners of blighted and abandoned properties can be brought back to Pennsylvania to face criminal prosecution.

With this law in effect, the days of small municipalities being handcuffed in their struggle against blight should be over. Make your local elected officials aware of this law and attend their meetings insisting they act to save our small towns and, ultimately, our way of life.

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