Coaldale officials are hoping a proposed law slowly wending its way through the state legislature will give them powerful ammunition in the war against blight.
Following pleas from two High Street women who are contending with rats, raw garbage and overgrown weeds on a vacant neighboring property, Mayor Richard Corkery spoke in favor of Senate Bill 900, also known as the Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act.
The proposed legislation, introduced in 2008 by the late State Senator James J. Rhoades, which would give municipalities the power to place liens on the personal assets of the owners of deteriorating properties after a court decree is entered against them, passed the Senate by a unanimous 50-0 vote on July 2, according to a letter from state Sen. David G. Argall to municipal officials in the his 29th legislative district. It is now in the House Urban Affairs Committee, the letter said.
The proposed legislation would also make it easier to clarify who owns the property, and would include language that would require mortgage lenders to maintain the properties - keeping the grass cut, the windows whole and trash cleared - when the owners default. it would also deny municipal permits pending correction of serious violations and payment of municipal taxes and services, the letter said. The bill also provides for extradition of the owners of blighted properties to Pennsylvania to address the problems, Argall wrote.
Argall, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said in the letter that Pennsylvania has about 300,000 vacant and abandoned properties. "Blight causes financial problems for our downtowns and our neighborhoods," he wrote.
He asked municipal officials to contact his office with specific information about how the bill would help them in their own fight against blight.
Council's discussion of the bill followed complaints by Lillian Holota of 28 E. High St. and Ann Gallagher of 26 E. High St. The women are concerned about the condition of a property at 22 E. High St.
The owner of the property, a half-double, is the Atkinson Real Estate Group. According to Schuylkill County tax records, the Atkinson Group, which lists its owner as Frank Atkinson of 247 Doney Run, Weatherly, bought the property in 2007 for $18,000.
Borough zoning officer Mark Richards has cited Atkinson. Richards at a public meeting last month said he now believes Atkinson is in New York.
Holota told council she recently found a dead rat on her porch, and believes it came from the Atkinson property. She is also concerned about a trampoline on the property that neighborhood children are using. She asked if the borough could dismantle it, but Councilman Tom Keerans said the trampoline was a liability issue for the owner, but that the borough could "not just go in things off peoples' properties."
Gallagher said she believes the grass has not been cut on the property at all this year, and that there are bags of raw garbage in the yard between her house and 22 E. High St. Some neighbors, she said, have been gradually cutting the grass in the back of the house. Further, the back window of the house has been open, and Gallagher said she worries that someone has broken in. A broken couch from the property is lying against her house, she said.
The house "could be a moneymaker for the town," she said, if the borough fines the owner for any work its crew has done, such as cleaning up the garbage or cutting grass. The house itself appears to be sound, she said.
"This is just absentee landlords buying properties, putting less than desirable people in the properties," Gallagher said. "If we could just cite the owners, bill the owners ..."
That prompted Councilman Joe Hnat to say that Atkinson had been cited in July and again this month. He said the situation "now sounds like a health problem." Hnat wants to at least get rid of the garbage.
He said that the borough has cut the grass and cited absentee landlords, but "we never get paid. We've got five or six places in town, every year we've got the same problem."