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"At this point, the committee is in fact-finding mode to help determine how we might be able to make this proposal be effective at helping improve the community."

Mayoral Musings: Vacancy Ordinance Round 3, Part 3

Lansdale Borough Hall. Photo by James Short.

  • Opinion

Mayor Garry Herbert

Lansdale Borough

Title: Vacancy Ordinance Round 3; Part 3

Last week, the Lansdale Code Committee met and discussed continuing the conversation around the possible establishment of a vacancy registry or ordinance that would help establish community standards and expectations around vacant buildings in our community.

I am pleased to share that the conversations will continue to occur over the next several months as more research is gathered and reviewed by the committee in the hopes of crafting an ordinance that meets our community’s needs and address the vacancy issues we have in Lansdale.

To be clear, no language has been proposed yet. Last week, the committee simply restated and affirmed their desire to review existing ordinance language from neighboring municipalities (we already have Lansdowne, Lock Haven, and Pottstown) and a desire to review the volume of commercially vacant property in the borough. At this point, the committee is in fact-finding mode (as they should be) to help determine how we might be able to make this proposal be effective at helping improve the community.

Do I wish we were reviewing language for potential passage to get the process of implementation underway? Yes, of course. After talking about this for three years and hearing from every resident under the sun about how they are sick of looking at vacant buildings and wishing something could be done, I am eager to implement a known and viable option that will, hopefully, bring vacant commercial property owners forward to either improve their properties or fill them. However, there is value to being purposeful and intentional in our design and that often requires patience and research, which is a reasonable and rational approach worthy of our time.

As expected, there is some pushback to this proposal. Concerns range from how onerous the expectations of property owners may be to the fear of the unknown and what happens if a property owner just fills a space with any business, they come across rather than the right business or an ideal business.

This argument, in my opinion, is one of the most frustrating for several reasons.

  • The supposition of this argument is that property owners who have had perpetually vacant properties have the capacity to fill a property whenever they choose and are, in fact, choosing to not fill it because of their own needs/causes/beliefs…is absolutely infuriating. I would rather they choose to fill it with something and see how it goes rather than spend a decade leaving it empty. If the business is viable, market economics will make it successful. If it is not, it will fail. Such is the life of a property owner.

  • Additionally, the argument suggests that the borough can control what goes into commercial property. To be very clear, the borough has no such power. The borough has invested in a Main Street Consultant (Stephen Barth) to help find businesses to fill vacant property (at taxpayer expense). These efforts are to help further the process but are by no means binding or mandatory. The property owner can always put whatever meets the zoning requirements in their building. The idea that an ideal opportunity might be missed because a non-ideal business has filled an empty space is not something we can pre-suppose. In other words, it was never in our control and shouldn’t hold us back from instituting reasonable vacancy regulations and rules.

  • Finally, it ignores the realities of the buildings that would fall subject to this ordinance. We are not talking about properties that are occasionally vacant and the property owner is making every effort to fill it quickly. They would qualify for waivers that allow them to not be subject to fines. This ordinance is, hopefully, going to be written to focus on properties that have for decades now been empty. The argument that they might put something there that would damage the borough more seems like a leap focused more on generating fear so that the underlying issue, the vacant building, and the owner, is allowed to continue operating in a way that doesn’t benefit anyone but themselves.

As noted by, of all places, The Greater Ohio Policy Center, “Research by GOPC and others has confirmed vacant homes [properties], especially those that are left to deteriorate, greatly reduce the value of surrounding properties. Vacant Property Registry Ordinances are a proven strategy in reducing the number of vacant properties and encourage a healthier real estate market, which benefits everyone.”

It is my hope that residents will come forward to support the continued development of this ordinance. In the next meeting we will likely get to see how much vacant property we have in the borough and where it is located (and who owns it to our knowledge). Additionally, we will likely have more substantive discussion around possible ordinance language that has passed in other communities (beyond those listed above) and continue to discuss what a rate schedule might be.

Personally, it is my hope to pass this effort and begin the process of implementation while simultaneously working with our Economic Development Committee to figure out how we would allocate the funds generated from the fees to help further our economic development efforts in the borough.

The re-investment of these funds is critical to the success of the program, in my opinion. We must utilize the funds in a way that helps lift our community up to overcome the continued existence of these burdensome properties while also alleviating the pressure on taxpayers to subsidize the work vacant property owners should be doing to begin with.

Mayor Herbert

Tuesday, May 21, 2024


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