In this file photo, vegetation overtakes an abandoned home in the Pittsburgh area.

Several years ago, a hole in the roof of an abandoned house, part of a duplex in Denver, led to water and rats entering the occupied adjoining home.

"What are you going to do about it?" the frustrated neighbor asked borough council.

Council members found a remedy, but Denver Borough Manager Michael Hession said the process ended up being arduous and costly.

That experience and others led Hession to join leaders from four municipalities Tuesday in asking the Lancaster County commissioners to create a land bank authority with the expertise and tools to tackle derelict properties.

Land bank authorities work to acquire blighted, abandoned and tax-foreclosed properties, get them rehabilitated and put them back on the market, according to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, a champion of land banks as a way to improve housing stock and restore older neighborhoods.

"The magnitude of blighted properties in my town is overwhelming," Jeffrey Helm, zoning officer for Columbia, told the commissioners. "We welcome any help you can give us in terms of the land bank."

County Commissioners Dennis Stuckey and Scott Martin expressed interest, but said they wanted to learn more before making a commitment. Commissioner Craig Lehman offered his support.

"I hope, if there are some minor concerns along the way, we can iron them out collectively and then move forward with this," Lehman said.

Dauphin County created Pennsylvania's first land bank authority in 2013, a year after a new state law gave municipalities and counties the blight-fighting tool. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Venango County and other places have since created their own land banks.

Lancaster city is moving forward with creating a land bank for city properties, Randy Patterson, the city's economic development director, told LNP. The concept was featured in the Lancaster City Alliance's new strategic plan.

Fighting blight

Matthew Sternberg, executive director of the Lancaster County Redevelopment Authority, took the lead Tuesday in explaining land banks to the commissioners. A countywide land bank authority would be created by a vote of the commissioners.

Sternberg said traditional redevelopment processes are designed for larger projects and are too cumbersome for addressing instances of isolated blight.

He offered the example of an abandoned, deteriorating house in the middle of a Mountville development. The owner had died and his heirs may not have been entitled to the house.

"It's an extended, complicated, expensive process in order to get a court to clear the title on that and put us in a position where we could get the property redeveloped," Sternberg said. "Working a project like that through the land bank could expedite projects in those circumstances where the title isn't clear."

Overhead reduced

Under Sternberg's proposal, existing staff with the redevelopment authority would run the land bank authority to minimize overhead.

He said the authority would address only those properties in municipalities and school districts that want the land bank's help.

A key tool, Sternberg said, is the ability to acquire tax delinquent properties before they go to auction. The action would be taken only when there was concern the property could be acquired by parties that would not rehabilitate the property.

The authority could then hold the property tax free for up to five years while the rehabilitation process goes forward.

"Most would not take that long," Sternberg said.

After the property is sold, the land bank would split the property's tax revenue with the municipality and school district for five years, Sternberg said. The time-limited tax revenue from sold properties would be the authority's sole funding source.

Officials from Lancaster Township, Lititz and Millersville also spoke Tuesday in support of starting a land bank.