While a proposal to create a land bank in the city of Pittsburgh is getting bogged down by controversy, a similar plan that would include 40 municipalities in the Mon Valley and eastern reaches of Allegheny County is hurtling ahead without much dissention.
The Twin Rivers, Turtle Creek Valley and Steel Valley Councils of Governments began the process of creating a land bank program shortly after Gov. Tom Corbett signed enabling legislation in December of 2012.
Steel Valley COG Executive Director An Lewis says representatives of the three COGs have been researching land banks in other states, holding monthly planning meetings and reaching out to individual municipalities within their organizations.
“We’ve been attending other public meetings with [Community Development Corporation] groups talking about blighted property, talking about land banking, and soliciting their feedback,” said Lewis. “So our development process has been very inclusive of our communities.”
Lewis believes that is one of the reasons why they have been able to build such strong support. The raw numbers also help.
According to Lewis, blight cost the 40 municipalities represented by the three COGs a collective $254 million in 2012.
She said the residents also know that many of their individual governments are too small to combat the issue on their own.
“Individual municipalities can’t control what their neighbors do, but if they come together as a group and they develop a program together, everybody benefits,” Lewis said.
Lewis believes the land bank would be the nation’s first multi-municipal land bank not run by a county.
The goal is to have everything in place by June to launch the program.
If the program is to be successful Lewis knows it will have to walk a fine line between being overly controlled by the municipalities and overly controlled by the program’s management.
“Inclusiveness without bogging down the system,” Lewis said. "Where there is enough participation by the community that the community is part of the process, but that the process flows.”
Lewis said whatever the program looks like when it is finished, residents should understand that the problem was not created overnight and it will not be fixed overnight.
“Land banks need to be sustainable, they need to be financially responsible, they need to take on only the properties that they can handle and maintain,” said Lewis, who warns that if they try to doo too much all at once the land bank will only add to the problem it is trying to fix.
The proposal is not without its opponents. Like the proposal in Pittsburgh, many detractors fear it will give too much power to commercial developers. Others have voiced concerns that it will lead to too many rental units.
Lewis said the COGs are working to address those issues.