Oct. 31, 2009
By Alan Jaffe
They’re calling it the “first shot fired in the Second Battle of Germantown.”
A new non-profit, the Germantown Conservancy, filed a petition Oct. 26 in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas seeking conservatorship of more than 300 buildings and vacant lots in Germantown, Mt. Airy and Chestnut Hill in order to protect and restore them. The long list of sites includes historical and architectural landmarks such as Germantown Town Hall, Tulpehocken Train Station and the recently fire-ravaged Garrett-Dunn House, in addition to many other deteriorating properties.
Conservancy co-chair Peter Wirs said the petition is the first implementation of Act 135, the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Rendell a year ago and went into effect Feb. 24. The Germantown Conservancy, a coalition of civic, community, historical and other non-profit groups within the 12th, 59th, 22nd and 9th Wards, was incorporated Feb. 9.
Act 135 is aimed at properties in which the owner has not abated building code violations that pose a danger to the community. If the owner does not correct the violations or satisfy the court-appointed conservator’s liens, the conservator can sell the property. The act moves vacant properties from government or private ownership to court oversight.
The Conservancy “will not target any individual residences that are occupied, even if they are not in compliance with the code,” Wirs said at a recent meeting of the organization’s board. “We deliberately limited ourselves.” A couple of apartment complexes on the list may be removed as well, he said.
But what is on the list is considerable: 331 parcels covering more than 5 million square feet. Over half of the projects owe a total of $2 million in city real estate taxes, according to the Conservancy. Ten percent are owned by the city or SEPTA; nearly 14 percent are owned by for-profit corporate, partnership or individual owners; 4 percent by non-profits, over 5 percent by religious institutions; and 16 percent by absentee owners.
“When you see the extent and degree of abandoned and blighted property in an area that is hallowed ground, not just in Germantown but the entire area, and you live with the extensive and rich history of Germantown, anybody worth his salt can see that Germantown possesses a unique opportunity to pull itself up, using Act 135, and restore the quality of life that all people are entitled to,” Wirs said.
Act 135 was introduced in the Pennsylvania House by Rep. Don Walko, of Pittsburgh, and co-sponsored by Rep. John Taylor, of the Port Richmond area, who brought the measure to Wirs’ attention. It is based on the Ohio Receivership Law, championed by Judge Raymond Pianka of the Cleveland Housing Court.
Christine Goldbeck, executive director on the Republican side of the Pennsylvania House Urban Affairs Committee, worked on the creation of Act 135. “We look at it as another tool that local governments have to fight blight and the social and economic consequences of blight,” Goldbeck said. “Let this problem be handled locally and let the court decide. In these cases, locals know best. At the state level, we’re trying to give them the authority and tools to do these things.”
Goldbeck said the act has already been applied in the borough of Saint Clair in Schuylkill County, where the court allowed a resident to buy a neighboring property for $1, under the condition that it be demolished within 90 days. “Demolition was not a top reason for doing conservatorship. But in this case, it took down an unsightly, dangerous property,” Goldbeck said.
“It’s so neat to see this law now being put into play, in small ways or in bigger ways, such as in Germantown.”
Act 135 is not a form of eminent domain. It is not a government seizure of property for public purposes. Buildings targeted under Act 135 are in violation of municipal codes, and the conservatorship forces the owner to comply with existing laws. If the owner does not, the property can be sold after the conservator corrects any code violations.
The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas issued a series of guidelines for implementation of the act on Oct. 2. Those guidelines require evidence on behalf of the conservator that the property meet at least three of the following conditions:
• That the city has declared the building to be a public nuisance;
• That no permits for rehabilitation work have been issued in the past 12 months and that the building is in need of substantial rehabilitation;
• Documentation that the building is unfit for occupancy;
• Documentation that the building is a fire risk to adjacent properties;
• Documentation that unauthorized entry is possible;
• Photos showing that the conditions are an “attractive nuisance” to children;
• Code citations that address the presence of vermin, debris, uncut vegetation, and deterioration of the structure or grounds.
• Photos that show the effect of the blighted property on the economic well-being of neighboring properties and the community.
• Or police reports regarding illicit activity at the property.
A Systematic Approach