Condemnation: Condemning Properties Using Blighted Property Review Committee
Under Pennsylvania law, a redevelopment authority may use the power of eminent domain to take individual abandoned properties. Condemnation is a powerful and controversial tool. Fortunately, the threat of condemnation is a powerful motivator, and chronically unresponsive owners often bring their properties up to code or to sell them during the 12- to 18-month condemnation process.
What does it do?
For a redevelopment authority to acquire a blighted, vacant property under the Urban Redevelopment Law, it must appoint a Blighted Property Review Committee (BPRC) to evaluate whether the property meets the definition of blight, based on the criteria in the statute. If the owner refuses to make corrective repairs on a property identified as blighted, the redevelopment authority may proceed to condemn the property after conferring with the appropriate planning commission and the blighted-property review board. The BPRC, with representation from the county commissioners or city council, the mayor, the planning commission, and the redevelopment authority, is responsible for determining and certifying properties as blighted, making them eligible for redevelopment authority acquisition. The state defines 11 criteria as blight, and a property needs to meet only one condition to qualify as blighted.
Under 35 P.S. § 1712.1(c), a blighted property in Pennsylvania must meet 1 of the following 11 criteria:
- Public nuisance
- Attractive nuisance to children
- Accumulation of trash and debris or haven for vermin
- Unfit for human habitation
- Fire hazard
- Lack of water, gas, or other utilities
- Tax delinquent for two years and vacant
- Vacant and not code compliant within a year of receiving notice of violations
- Abandoned property with municipal liens exceeding 150% of value
- Defective or unusual condition of title
- Environmentally hazardous conditions or contamination
How do we pay for it?
Condemnation can be funded through Community Development Block Grant funds if the acquisition of the property will address a serious public health or safety issue, or through general operating budget funds.
The latter stages of eminent domain are costly. Early hearings and notice to owners are not. But for the tool to be used effectively, the redevelopment authority must be prepared to follow through and to complete the condemnation when the owner fails to take action.
What types of property are covered?
Any property that is blighted under the definition of the Pennsylvania Urban Redevelopment Law (P.L. 991, May 24, 1945).
What challenges will it solve?
This tool allows a redevelopment authority to gain clear title and control of blighted properties where blight negatively affects surrounding communities. Although eminent-domain power should be used sparingly because of its high cost and its relative unpopularity with the public, it has been very effective in motivating the owners of blighted properties to make corrective repairs. The process provides owners with multiple notices of potential condemnation and almost a year to retain their properties by bringing them up to code. When the fear of losing a property is not sufficient incentive to bring a property up to code, the redevelopment authority will pay fair market value for the property based on an appraisal. .
Where does it apply?
Any jurisdiction with a redevelopment authority. State law allows all cities and boroughs with a population of over 10,000 to form a redevelopment authority.
How does it work? What is needed to use this law effectively?
The process to condemn a property takes 12 to 18 months from initial identification.(68) After a municipality decides that a property may meet the definition of blight, it sends a warning letter to the owner. If the owner fails to respond adequately, a notice of determination hearing is sent to the owner. At the hearing, the municipality presents evidence of blight to the blighted property review committee, and the owner may respond. The BPRC then holds a blight determination vote. If the BPRC determines that the property is blighted, a determination order is sent to the owner, saying that a certification hearing will be held within 60 days. At the hearing, the BPRC will vote to decide whether to certify the property as blighted. If the property is declared blighted, a certification order is sent to the owner. Next, the redevelopment authority issues a declaration of taking and a statutory offer to pay a specific amount for the property. The property owner has 20 days to object. If the owner offers no objection, the redevelopment lawyer goes to court to pay the just compensation or the fair market value of the property and is granted a writ of possession. If the owner objects at this point, the case moves to the county court of common pleas. If the owner does not object, the municipality owns the property once the check is sent to the property owner. If the owner objects at this late date, the complaint goes to the board of views, but the owner may dispute only the fair market value of the property.
What policies and practices will increase our chances of successfully using this tool?
Provide repeated notice to the owner at each stage in the process so that the owner has every opportunity to come forward and care for the property or transfer it to a responsible owner. In the few cases where it is necessary to complete the condemnation process, it is essential to condemn the property and incur the costs in order to create a clear and consistent threat that will compel other owners to be accountable. Once properties are condemned, they should be transferred to a responsible new owner and rehabilitated or redeveloped.
Acquisition is costly, so condemnation must be deployed strategically. Allentown and its redevelopment authority devote priority attention to (1) properties that have been declared unfit for human habitation, (2) properties located in Allentown’s central-city neighborhoods, adjacent to or near downtown, and (3) properties located in areas where city inspectors are conducting inspections (so that redevelopment authority acquisitions can complement the inspection process as needed).(69)
What legal documents will we need?
The redevelopment authority has all legal documents and notices required to condemn a property.
Who is using the tool now?
In Cumberland County, the threat of eminent domain has motivated many owners of blight-certified properties to bring their properties up to code. Between 2000 and 2008, municipalities referred more than 100 vacant properties to the Redevelopment Authority of Cumberland County (RDACC) for condemnation, and only 5 were taken through the entire eminent domain process and condemned.(70) After 2008, the number of eminent domain actions brought by the RDACC decreased dramatically—to approximately 20 between 2008 and 2013. Four of those failed to motivate the owners and went through the eminent domain process.(71) The significant reduction in the use of eminent domain is in large part due to the institution of a new practice that requires municipalities to pay for both RDACC legal fees and just compensation to the owner. Before 2008, the RDACC funded all aspects of the eminent domain process. In addition, before 2008, Cumberland County had in-house counsel, who shepherded the cases through the process. Today the RDACC contracts out for legal services.(72)
How can we combine this with other strategies?
This tool should only be used after code enforcement and other less costly tools have failed to bring the properties up to code. Allentown used eminent domain in conjunction with its hall of shame.
69. Allentown Progress Report, Fels Institute of Government (April 2009), https://www.fels.upenn.edu/sites/www.fels.upenn.edu/files/Allentown_Progress_Report_0.pdf.
70. Interview with Chris Gulotta, former executive director of the Redevelopment Authority of Cumberland County, August 15, 2013; Northumberland County Comprehensive Blight Prevention/Remediation Program (July 2012).
71. Interview with Ben Laudermilch, Ed LeClear, and Tricia Naylor, JD at the Redevelopment Authority of Cumberland County, August 14, 2013.
72. Interview with Chris Gulotta, former executive director of the Redevelopment Authority of Cumberland County, August 15, 2013.