The Shenango Township supervisors would like nothing more than for new businesses to locate in Lawrence Village Plaza.
Just not right now.
Responding to a request for information from a visitor at their Thursday night meeting, the supervisors shared that they will not approve any new occupancy permits for the moribund shopping center until the owners pay over $240,000 in back taxes and remedy more than 150 code and safety violations.
Visitor Frank MacPherson opened the public comment period by saying that he has been interested in leasing space at the plaza, and asked for an update on the township’s efforts to resolve the outstanding issues.
MacPherson is not a township resident, Supervisor Frank Augustine later explained, but was allowed to speak because of his interest in the plaza.
“There are 98 lots in front of that building that are nonfunctional,” Supervisor Brandon Rishel said. “So under Act 90, when there are code enforcement violations, you are not to issue occupancy permits for the property. So until the delinquent, out-of-town property owner takes care of the blight that’s in our community, and pays their taxes, we will not issue another permit on that property.”
In addition, Rishel said, the township is not aware of any insurance on the property.
“How would I allow another company to come in and bring more people there, and put them at risk?” Rishel said.
The Neighborhood Blight Reclamation and Revitalization Act, or Act 90, was passed in October 2010 and took effect the following April. It expanded the abilities of municipalities to reduce blighted properties in their communities. Among the new powers that the act granted municipalities to exercise against properties “in serious code violation” are the ability to take property owners to court to seek judgments against their assets, and to deny permits to owners of buildings that are in code violation or behind in taxes or other municipal accounts until all existing violations are remedied.
Rishel pointed to a pair of folders he had brought to the meeting, which he said contained more than 150 violations. “When these are rectified, and all the taxes are paid, by all means, we will try to help (the plaza owners),” he said, adding that supervisors have talked multiple times with the owners without resolution. As far as the back taxes are concerned, he said, the plaza is scheduled for tax sale in September, but each time it comes up on the list, the owners pay just enough for it to be taken off.
MacPherson said he had first spoken with co-owner Chip Harrup in February about renting space at the plaza, and that his understanding was that there would be no issues. “But now,” he said, “suddenly, there are issues.”
Solicitor Lou Perrotta assured him that the township’s concerns about the plaza are nothing new.
“There are two files there,” he said, indicating Rishel’s folders. “It’s been very well documented by our zoning officer, all the issues there. I can assure you that every one of the supervisors has talked to the owners of that plaza. I’ve talked to both owners of the plaza. And we are no further ahead today than we were yesterday, than we were in February, than we were last February, than we were the February before that …
“Based on what I’ve seen, the township is on pretty solid ground for not issuing an occupancy permit.”
Another visitor asked if the township also could force existing tenants out and shut down the plaza altogether.
“We legally could,” Rishel responded, “But nobody in our community wants to throw out every person that’s over there.
“But the reality is, we have to come to a solution for this.”
Another avenue that has been brought up at previous meetings is that of conservatorship. The township would seek authority from the courts to take over management of the plaza.
The topic has been raised at the last couple of meetings but, citing legal concerns, the supervisors and Perrotta have declined to elaborate on the process.
MacPherson, who left the meeting before he could be asked for further information on his plans, said that he had spoken with Harrup recently and was assured that all issues would be resolved by the end of the month.
“Seven years,” Rishel said, “I’ve heard that same story.”