Officially 'blighted' - Designation may lead to redevelopment: Carlisle PA Sentinel, 9/14/07

By Dale Heberlig

The Shippensburg [PA] Planning Commission tagged three properties at the eastern gateway to town as a “blighted area” on Sept. 12 - the first step in creating a state redevelopment zone that officials hope will spur rebirth of two crumbling buildings that mar the area.

The declaration came in a 3-0 vote by the commission, with vice chairman Art Berman abstaining.

Berman took pains to clarify that the action is based on a blight designation pertaining to the state's 1945 redevelopment law rather than the eminent domain provisions.

Berman abstained because he was not convinced that the independent study conducted by a county consultant proved that the properties met the requirements for blight and redevelopment. However, he said he could not vote against the measure because he recognized the deteriorated condition of the sites.

The commission took no action on the county request last month - choosing to wait until planners Mike Pimental and Scott Madey were present.

Cumberland County's planning commission is to review the redevelopment proposal - forwarded by the county redevelopment authority - at its next meeting Sept. 20 at 7:30 a.m.

The former University Lodge Motel at the intersection of Orange Street and Walnut Bottom Road and the “Swidler” property along Walnut Bottom Road have been vacant for years.

The motel sustained significant damage in a fire 5 years ago and has never been restored. The Swidler property has been vacant much longer.

The development area designation and blighted status positions future developers to seek government funding, and puts the county in a position to “take” the properties through eminent domain if it becomes necessary.

Christopher Houston, the county's real estate director, says current owners of the properties will have every opportunity to develop the lots on their own.

However, he says the eminent domain alternative could be an ace in the hole for the county in sparking redevelopment where current property owners have failed.

Pimental, a planning commission member who served on Shippensburg's Borough Council in the early 1990s says the action is long-awaited.

Many complaints
“The Swidler property was the source of many complaints when I was on Council 15 years ago,” Pimental said following Wednesday's vote. “We had to do something. I think we acted properly.”

Current Council President Earl Parshall says he sought a solution to the unsightly and empty properties for five years.

“I'd like to live to see it solved,” he said.

The process could be lengthy, but there is already one potential developer interested in the motel location.

Vigilant Hose Co. President Danny Byers says the location is one the fire company is examining as a site for a new headquarters.

Byers huddled with Houston after Wednesday's vote. He said the company remains interested.

Houston said last month that the Vigilant Hose Co. made a purchase offer for the University Lodge property in a conventional real estate deal, but were rebuffed by the joint owners of the property - LeeAnn Corp of Florida and Jaydip Inc., a Harrisburg-area firm.

Houston says it could take five to seven months to complete the “redevelopment area” process.

Process will begin
If the county planning commission signs off on the plan and the area is certified as blighted, a conceptual redevelopment plan is prepared, identifying proposed land uses, necessary zoning changes, traffic impacts, road improvements and an estimated cost of acquiring the real estate.

Specific plans - from a specific developer - would then be outlined and presented to Shippensburg Borough Council and the county commissioners.

If approved that plan becomes a contract, and the county could proceed with land acquisition through eminent domain, if necessary.

Houston said Friday, “It looks like eminent domain is where the University Lodge property is headed.”

Swidler attended last month's commission meeting, but was absent Wednesday's, asking for a delay that was not granted.

In a letter, Swidler pointed to recent improvements to his building - mostly fresh paint.

However, Houston said he looked through the glass doors of the building during Mondays rain, and a “waterfall” flowing down an interior wall and a floor covered with water.

Along with the former motel and the Swidler property, a third parcel - a 1.2-acre plot with inadequate road frontage - is affected by the action.

Houston says Kenneth Bender - owner of that lot - does not oppose the blight designation.

Carlisle PA Sentinel: http://www.cumberlink.com