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Property Control: Neighborhood groups wary of land-bank bill 

"The ability to control land is key in any community"

A land-bank bill that would change the way tens of thousands of parcels across the city could be redeveloped is drawing criticism from community groups, who argue the legislation doesn't do enough to include them.

"The community approval process is not clear at all," says Carl Redwood, chairman of the Hill District Consensus Group. "And without full community participation, the land-bank legislation can be a way to fast-track what developers want to do in spite of the community's wishes."

The bill's supporters say the legislation is a work in progress, and say they hope community groups will help craft a mechanism to give themselves influence over the disposition of land in their neighborhoods.

Consternation among some community groups came after Pittsburgh City Councilor Deb Gross introduced legislation Jan. 14 that would create a Pittsburgh land bank — an entity separate from city council that would act as a central clearinghouse for blighted, vacant or tax-delinquent properties. Under state law, the land bank would be authorized to expedite the title-clearing process and deal with existing tax liabilities, allowing for more efficient reuse of distressed land.

Gross' legislation gives a seven-member board the authority to decide what happens to property in the land bank. Three of the board's members would be appointed by council; four would be appointed by the mayor.

The legislation currently specifies that the use of land "shall be consistent with the provisions of the City's Comprehensive Plan and any adopted neighborhood plans." Where such plans don't exist, "the Land Bank shall determine that proposed uses are consistent with the goals of the community by consulting with any community groups in the area [as well as] the Department of City Planning, and the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh."

Marimba Milliones, president and CEO of the Hill Community Development Corporation, says she's supportive of land banks in theory, but worries about how the land bank will operate in communities that don't have formalized community plans.

"The Hill District has a community plan, but formal codification of that is different," Milliones says, adding that the city has not systematically provided resources for community planning. "[The legislation] has to take into consideration neighborhoods with very large amounts of vacant land like the Hill District and Homewood and parts of the North Side."

Although the bill is at the top of Mayor Bill Peduto's legislative agenda, the community-inclusion process "was one of the things that was intentionally left a little bit vague so we could solicit feedback," says Matthew Barron, Peduto's policy manager. Letting the legislation develop after it is introduced is "not unique to this legislation," he says.

Nate Hanson, Gross' chief of staff, says Gross is open to amendments and will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. Thu., Feb. 20, at Pittsburgh City Council chambers, so that "[as] many people who want to speak [will] be able to speak."

Ernie Hogan acknowledges the bill needs work. He's the executive director of the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group, an organization which has been leading discussions about blighted and vacant land, and which lobbied the state legislature to pass the law that enables land banks.

"There's been a lot of process around this," Hogan says, noting that a version of Pittsburgh's bill has been around "for at least a year." But, he adds, "I do think there needs to be an engagement process or an internal review board that can seek those community inputs."

City Councilor Corey O'Connor, a potential swing vote, says he's working on amendments that address some of his own concerns about how community groups will be able to influence the disposition of parcels in the land bank.

One amendment would expand the composition of the land-bank board, adding representatives from neighborhoods with the most blighted and vacant property.

Another would mimic the zoning board's process, O'Connor says, by offering the public and council a chance to weigh in.

Those amendments are still in draft form, O'Connor says, and will likely be presented in a few weeks — though he's generally happy with the bill. "Overall, it's a good program because we can gather a lot of properties at one time and distribute them quickly," he says. "But we want to have all the community leaders involved, and that's where these amendments are coming from."

City Councilor Daniel Lavelle, who represents parts of the Hill District and the North Side, is less impressed with the bill. He says community groups in his district are worried about everything from what role CDCs will play to what happens if the land bank takes over properties that are occupied, but tax-delinquent.

"The ability to control land is key in any community — we'd essentially be giving it over to a board without any accountability provisions," says Lavelle, noting the bill implies that there won't be lots of debate. "The bill actually called for the board to be created and seated by March of this year. [...] That doesn't leave much room for conversation."

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