Mount Union is set to begin addressing blighted and dangerous properties starting with approximately 20 locations that code enforcement and council members say violate borough ordinance.
The borough’s effort will first zero-in on a long-vacant home house at 130 W. Walnut St. and a home at 78 E. Water St. which was gutted by fire several years ago.
The borough enacted a dangerous structures ordinance in November 2016 following several years of discussion and input from an ad hoc committee composed of local property owners.
Borough manager Sue Zinobile said the majority of the properties on the list of 20 structures are vacant, and each has it own set of circumstances — some more complicated that others.
“We’re finding some of these blighted homes are not owned by borough residents,” Zinobile said, adding disconnect between owner and property is, in itself, part of the problem.
“They don’t have to face their neighbors as their properties deteriorate, they don’t have to live with it,” she said.
Other situation, she said, are yet more challenging due to legal standing.
The house at 78 E. Water St. demonstrates some of the nuanced circumstances that can hinder repair efforts. The home is tied up in an estate with multiple heirs; one of the heirs, Dorthea Helton, was living in the house at the time of the fire and continues to maintain of the lot.
“I’m doing the best I can,” Helton said last week while working in the yard which surrounds the burned-out home. “If I could do more, I would.”
Helton said the 2015 blaze started with a grease fire in the kitchen. Firefighters’ efforts to save the home were hampered, she said.
“No water hit my house for eight to 10 minutes because the nearest hydrant was inoperable,” she said.
While Helton and her daughter escaped unharmed, the fire was catastrophic for the home, where Helton grew up, and has been vacant since except for Helton’s two dogs whom she keeps in kennels on the lot.
In addition to losing her childhood home, Helton said her insurance options on the property were limited because she doesn’t own the home outright, leaving her with inadequate funds to tackle a repair or demolition project.
Zinobile said council’s property committee — Mary Crawley, Nadine Russell and chairman Mike Shields — spent hours reviewing the 20 sites flagged by code enforcement officer Alec Brindle.
“They’ve come up with recommendations for every one of those properties,” Zinobile said. Council’s ordinance committee, chaired by Crawley who is joined by Gary Kuklo and Wayne Querry, also reviewed the property list, she said.
Zinobile noted the property roster is by no means final.
“It’s going to be a very fluid list,” she said, explaining the borough will drop and add properties based on state of repair. She also noted that at any given time, there are properties which, due to various circumstances, could be on the cusp of abandonment or blight.
Further, Zinobile said the committees are examining four potential amendments to the existing dangerous structures ordinance.
“They’ll give our code enforcement officer a little more ability and give the ordinance at little more teeth,” she said.
Blighted properties are an issue hardly unique to Mount Union; in March the Gov. Tom Wolf announced the launch of Restore Pennsylvania, an aggressive initiative designed to boost communities’ ability to address abandoned and deteriorated properties
Unfortunately for Mount Union, Zinobile said, Restore Pennsylvania comes with population requirements and focuses only on demolition scenarios which run counter to the borough’s goal of getting as many of the blighted properties as possible repaired, thus keeping them on the tax rolls.
Still, Zinobile said the borough is casting a wide net in its search for solutions. In addition to taking a closer look at its ordinance, Zinobile said council is also looking at programs like Habitat for Humanity and is eager to see what programs could be made available through the state’s Early Intervention Program to which the borough is seeking entry.
Faced with her own set of challenges, Helton said she’s eager to meet with Zinobile and other borough officials to talk about her particular hurdles and continues to looking into insurance options and ways to work with the estate.
“I just want to be made whole,” Helton said.
So far, council voted to send out notices regarding 130 W. Walnut and 78 E. Water streets.
In his monthly CEO report delivered at the May 1 council meeting, Brindle said the owner of 112 W. Garber St. has not met his deadline for repairs. The timeline for repairs was established as a result of a hearing — the first held in accordance with the dangerous structures ordinance — back in December. The property is owned by Carl and Cecelia Herman of Blairs Mills.
Tenants contacted the borough Sept. 27 of last year and after reviewing its condition, Brindle and council ordered the home evacuated.
At the conclusion of the Dec. 19 hearing, council gave the owners 30 days to perform a mold inspection and, if mold is found, another 30 days for remediation. Council noted that if no mold is found, the 90-day period to make repairs begins.
Brindle said the 90-day period yielded no repairs. Following the recommendation of solicitor Larry Lashinsky, council voted to set the issue to the local magisterial district justice.
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