Every neighborhood has at least one house that looks like it’s haunted; the windows are missing or broken, the roof is caving in, there is junk everywhere and the grass may even be growing almost as high as the structure itself.
In Potter County municipalities, such as the boroughs of Austin, Coudersport and Ulysses, as well as Roulette Township, these types of properties — blighted properties — are being addressed.
“We have been fairly successful in getting some of these issues resolved,” Roulette Township Supervisor Jeremy Morey said.
Morey said the Roulette Township code enforcement officer went around the municipality last year to look at properties of concern.
“None of those were deemed ‘blighted,’” Morey said. “There are still numerous properties that we have concerns about in regards to being dangerous, dilapidated and collecting junk cars and/or garbage.”
Morey said the township has been getting complaints about how some properties are being neglected. In response, violation letters have been sent to the residents of those properties, giving the property owners a specific amount of time to rectify the ordinance violations or face fines.
“The biggest concern that the supervisors have is, in the summer, the mowing of lawns (and) the collection of unregistered vehicles, junk/garbage (year round,) allowing a structure to be dangerous,” Morey said.
Many of these non-complaint properties in Roulette are being addressed via Sweden Township Police Chief Bryan Phelps.
“Chief Phelps has been out talking to those homeowners about getting things cleaned up and taken care of,” Morey said. “Luckily, some property owners have taken it upon themselves to clean up and some have done the same after a visit from (the) chief.”
Phelps, who provides law enforcement services to Roulette and Sweden townships, as well as to Ulysses Borough, said blighted properties are a serious issue.
“They are a public health and safety concern,” Phelps said, adding that garbage and disease affect public health, and stray animals and infestation are a threat to public safety, especially if an animal chewing on electrical wiring starts a fire.
“Clean and healthy properties are encouraged,” Phelps said.
Properties are deemed blighted when they are neglected beyond structural repair, are potentially dangerous for residence and have a culmination of ordinance violations, Phelps said. Phelps said it can be difficult to enforce ordinances that address neglected and blighted properties because property owners believe they have the right to choose how they live on their property, even if their choices are a threat to public health and safety.“It’s a sensitive issue,” Phelps said.
Phelps said disposing of garbage goes a long way to preventing blight. In many Potter County municipalities, burning non-toxic garbage is allowed in screen-covered cans. Phelps said taking garbage to the Potter County Solid Waste Authority is another solution, and a relatively inexpensive one — much less than violating an ordinance.
“I’d rather (people) spend the money to transfer then to pay the fine,” Phelps said.
Fines can reach as much $1,000 per day, per violation, Phelps said, depending on the municipality. A Potter County Solid Waste Authority staff member told the Potter Leader-Enterprise that its tipping fee is approximately $0.061 per pound and its demolition rate is approximately $0.535 per pound, not including appliances or electronics.
Supervisor Morey said that four “blighted” structures have been demolished in Roulette in the last two years, at the expense of owners.
“It is a good start to addressing the problem, but there are still many issues that we need to address,” Morey said. “We hope that the new system of issuing a violation letter followed up by a fine will encourage homeowners to start addressing these issues before a letter needs to be sent to them.”
In Ulysses, Borough Council President Roy Hunt said there are less than half a dozen properties of concern.
“We have four to five properties that could be called blighted,” Hunt said.
Ivan Lehman, a borough resident with previous involvement in the Northeastern Potter Economic Development Association, has been working with Ulysses Borough on a property on Main Street for the past 10 years.
“For NEPEDA’s interest in blight properties, it is to improve the quality of life for our resents, make the area more suitable and inviting for investments in business and commerce, providing more and better jobs in our area, improving our residential areas to invite more investments in our area,” Lehman said. “All of these efforts will improve our tax base and provide incentive for neighboring properties to make significant improvements in our area. Improving our tax base will help support our schools, the communities and the county.”
Hunt said Ulysses Borough addresses these issues, initially, by asking the property owner to clean up and/or repair the property.
“If necessary, we then go to the ordinance violations and progress through the court system,” Hunt said, which can take years.
“We are always looking for better and more efficient ways to address this issue,” Hunt said.
At the January Ulysses Borough Council meeting, Lehman advised the council that Habitat for Humanity has expressed an interest in placing a manufactured house on Main Street property and suggested the possibility of using Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance for it and other blighted properties in the borough. According to www.legis.state.pa.us, the LERTA Act authorizes “local taxing authorities to provide for tax exemption for certain deteriorated industrial, commercial and other business property and for new construction in deteriorated areas of economically depressed communities; providing for an exemption schedule and establishing standards and qualifications.”
In Coudersport, Borough Manager Bev Morris said there are a few vacant houses which need attention and upkeep, but none that are in serious disrepair.
“We have more of an issue with junk vehicles, garbage and debris in yards,” Morris said.
Morris said the redevelopment authority has taken down approximately six homes within the borough. Furthermore, Morris said the borough council has discussed these issues and accept that there are potential problems with a few properties.
“We have more buildings — garages, sheds, etc. — that are falling apart than houses,” Morris said.