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Vacancy ordinance explored to reduce number of empty buildings

City officials have begun to explore a vacancy ordinance that would target owners of commercial buildings/land who have habitually shown no intention to develop them.

The item was discussed at a recent city Blighted Property Review Board Committee. No formal action was taken, and future talks about the matter were encouraged.

Driven by City Councilwoman Bonnie Katz, the ordinance is working in other third-class code cities, and surfaced years ago when Chelsea Blair was serving as the city planner.

Today, Blair, who is the city deputy director of the Department of Community and Economic Development, has continued to research how these vacant buildings/land can become productive tax producing properties.

Katz made a reference to the empty “Hoyer building” on West Fourth Street.

“The empty building is such an eyesore,” she said.

Other property owners leave vacancies for years allowing the buildings to remain idle, and there are permits and fees that they could be assessed.

“I think this would hit them in their pocket,” Katz said.

Typically, what happens is in the first year of vacancy, usually the property owner is given notice to develop a business plan to develop the property.

In some ordinances, the property owners(s) must register the property the start of the following year.

In the second year, if they have plans under way, they need to work with the respective municipality and have an actual plan and request a waiver on the first year of permitting, Blair said.

Usually, Blair said, the third year is the final year for the waiver.

The first year permit is roughly $500, and in some circumstances, can be a permit or fee submitted bi-annually to the municipality, she said.

“As years go on, the fee increases,” Blair said.

Anything typically above the 10-year marker is $5,000, and any additional after the 10 years is an another $500 on top of that, she said.

“There are different ways to schedule,” she said.

Ordinances Blair reviewed define what it means to have a vacant property.

“Some municipalities have it as a percentage,” Blair said.

For example, the municipal ordinance can say if 60% of the building is vacant, it is to be registered as a vacant building.

There is a registration and permit fee, scheduling fee and waivers that are identified in the other city ordinances.

Patrick Marty, committee chairman, asked Blair whether the scale of percentage of vacancy is codified in state law or decided upon by the municipality.

“It is decided by the municipality,” Blair said. “We would be working with the solicitor on this.”

“I wouldn’t want to confuse a property that is codes compliant with those properties that may come before this committee,” Marty said.

Another city officials offered some further clarification to assuage Marty’s concern.

“The way the ordinance would read is yet to be determined but all of those variables can be incorporated into it,” said Skip Memmi, city director of the Department of Community and Economic Development.

This ordinance can be drafted in a multitude of ways, and the city can define the period of time, percentage of the building, related fines or registration fees and whether inspections are required or not, Memmi said.

Whatever is done, it is paramount to be specific that it is intended to resolve the habitual offenders versus someone who has a building vacant and for economic hardship reasons can’t meet the deadlines. It is not for penalizing the unfortunate business owner and the city wants to make sure it is getting to people who are creating the problem and not suffering from economic hardship, Memmi said.

A sliding scale would make sense, Marty said, adding that anyone who has a building in the Central Business District should be able to cover the $500 vacancy permit fee or he or she should probably not be owning it.

The waiver component would allow the business owner to explain his or her economic hardship and would give them time to develop an economic development business plan to get the building back on track, Blair said.

Those at the committee meeting indicated the issue is likely to be discussed in future meetings.

City of Altoona manager office said the vacancy permits generated $48,500 in income in 2020 and is at $39,000 as of late October.

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