Urban affairs committee looks at blight in Chester County

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House panel tours Downingtown, Caln, Coatesville and Parkesburg

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

BlightHearing

The State House Urban Affairs Committee prepares to hold a hearing on the impact of blight in Chester County, Wednesday at Coatesville City Hall.

COATESVILLE — The State House’s Urban Affairs Committee held a special hearing in the city Wednesday to address economic development and the ongoing problem of dealing with abandoned properties — often termed as blight — in Chester County.

While the issue of abandoned properties might best be identified with the city, it has been and continues to be an issue elsewhere in Chester County, too, including some of the more affluent communities in the county. Local officials came to testify before the committee hearing at City Hall, which included local legislators Harry Lewis Jr. (R-74) and Becky Corbin (R-155), both about managing the issue of abandoned properties and fostering an atmosphere of growth, so there is market demand for properties.

The group of legislators toured the area from Downingtown, through Coatesville — with briefings on both municipalities anticipated new train stations — and on out to Parkesburg on Tuesday, so they could get up close look at what some of the subject matter would be during the hearing.

Committee Chair Scott Petri (R-178) a Bucks County legislator with more than a passing familiarity with Chester County, as he grew up in Downingtown, said the term blight can be used to describe a lot of issues, but it generally means a community or neighborhood stuck in a downward spiral, with abandoned homes leading to lower property values, more crime and then, ultimately, more homes abandoned.

It’s an issue that got worse in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown, when folks lost jobs, got behind on their home payments and walked away. In many cases, banks own the homes, many of which have fallen into disrepair, leaving them with no one wanting to buy them.

“Blight, in the end, is something you know, when you see it,” he said. “Because of the 2008 economic downturn, a lot of communities are facing the problem of vacant properties.”

To be sure, while acknowledging the problem, the hearing was far from all doom and gloom. It was a chance for the local community to hear — and comment — on the issue and talk about how communities are working to fight their way back and what help could come from the state legislature.

“All of the communities cannot come to Harrisburg,” Lewis said, “so we’re coming to the community.”

Lewis said he thought holding the hearing in the city would signal support for revitalization efforts across the region from both Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature.

“I want to show that we are very serious about the rebuilding and revitalization of the communities of the 74th District,” he said.

The primary testimony during the three-hour plus hearing came from city officials, who spoke about current problems as well as ongoing redevelopment projects, including the planned redevelopment at Lincoln Highway and Route 82, Caln Township officials spoke about how a tax abatement program has sparked development along Lincoln Highway in the township, officials from the Downingtown Main Street Association spoke about their efforts to spark revitalization of the borough’s downtown, officials from Chester County Airport spoke about expansion plans and Parkesburg officials spoke about how they’ve coped with much of their housing base converted to rental properties.

While all detailed challenges — and where Harrisburg could be more helpful — all also talked about the path forward.

City Manager Michael Trio, who has a lengthy land management background, focused on the possibilities for his city, calling it a “hidden gem” with “great bones,” meaning Coatesville has all of the infrastructure in place for redevelopment, but just needs to build momentum.

With the train station project and the planned redevelopment of the Lincoln Highway corridor, Trio suggests that momentum is starting to build, yet challenges remain. He cited the $25 million project as an example.

While the developers are doing the heavy lifting for commercial/mixed use properties planned, it is on the city to rebuild and reengineer the intersection of Route 82 and Lincoln Highway to accommodate it. The project will cost $1.2 million, but the city has a matching grant from Chester County for $700,000. The problem, he notes, is for the cash-strapped city to find the other $500,000 to match from general revenues.

While the matching grant process means communities have skin in the game, it makes it tough for those communities in dire financial straits such as Coatesville to find a path forward, he noted. He suggested it would help to have a sliding scale — based on a municipalities’ financial health — on the percentages of the match.

Rep. James Santora (R-163), who noted he has long known and worked with Trio, said Coatesville reminds him a lot of Conshohocken when both worked on revitalization projects there some years ago.

“This sounds like Conshohocken to me when we got there,” he said, noting he sees the same opportunity, as long as local officials are just as flexible with local zoning and project approval.

“The projects may not fit what you’re used to,” he said, “but it (allowing different sorts of proposals) is what made Conshohocken successful. Now, the irony is that they need affordable housing, townhouse prices have exploded.”

Caln Commssioner Joshua Young testified about how his township has taken advantage of the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance program — which reduces local, school and county taxes on new construction and expansion for up to 10 years. The program is designed to increase the local tax base over the long term, moderately increase it over the short term all while not reducing tax income for the county, schools or municipalities. LERTA has been a key factor in four projects now completed, he said, with two more on the verge of approval.

Although LERTA has been a success story in Caln, Young noted a few tweaks could make it work even better. He asked that the legislature require taxing authorities — schools and counties — be required to respond to a municipality wishing to create a LERTA district within a specific time. Young said while Chester County quickly signed on and supported the effort, the Coatesville Area School District stalled the proposal for two years, on the basis of a single board director — Young didn’t specify in his testimony, but previously sources identified the individual as former Director Jack Dunn — before finally approving the LERTA district in 2013.

Chester County Airport Board Chairman Albert Koenig testified about the growth plans for the airport — plans that should help overall economic growth in the region, he said. He detailed plans for new hangers as well an expansion of the terminal building and eventually, a new runway.

The most pressing issue is the need to get approval to build a control tower — right now, at an airport with more business jet traffic than Lancaster or Reading airports, pilots depend on talking directly with each other, which limits the amount of traffic at the field and compromises safety. Additionally, neighboring Sikorsky Aircraft must truck its new helicopters across Washington Lane, closing the roadway periodically, for flight testing. With a control tower, Sikorsky could fly them directly from the factory — meaning an end to road closures.

Unfortunately, Koenig noted, the Federal Aviation Administration has placed a moratorium on new towers as it revises the regulations. So far, working with local members of Congress, the Airport has been unsuccessful in moving the project ahead.

Parkesburg Borough Manager James Thomas talked about a couple of issues, including tougher new ordinances related to rental properties — and ongoing frustration over needed reworking of Route 372 through the middle of the downtown.

Jack Assetto, member of the Parkesburg Business Association, explained the issue with Route 372.

The roadway sits on top of old trolley tracks, he noted — the old Coatesville to Atglen line — and as a result, is highly crowned in the middle of road. Assetto said that the middle of the roadway is as much as a foot higher than the sidewalks — a roadblock to downtown revitalization in the borough. He said that discussions with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation have proven fruitless — PennDOT as a policy does not deal with items under the roadbed.

The new ordinances regulating rental units — especially those calling for eviction on tenants with three police calls to their home in a year — have generally been accepted by local property owners, Assetto said.

Meanwhile, according to Downingtown Main Street President/CEO Steve Plaugher, the borough continues to push to see that its new train station is more than just “a sea of pavement” but rather, a mixed use development that brings value — and a walkable lifestyle to the downtown.

“We think that’s critical to the Main Street mission,” he said, as the borough looks to become a destination for surrounding communities as well as having a downtown residential hub ideally suited for young professionals.

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