Urban Farms And Conservatorship

Pennsylvania's Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act


In 2014, Pennsylvania enacted Act 157 of 2014 amending the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act (Act 135 of 2008).The purpose of the Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act (“ABPCA”) is to provide a tool to assist in addressing the rampant social and economic impact that abandoned and blighted properties have on communities.

To accomplish this goal, the ABPCA allows court-appointed conservators to rehabilitate blighted properties in order to bring them into compliance with municipal codes and transform them into attractive and productive properties that benefit the community directly.  However, before the recent Amendment,the ABPCA was unclear about whether or not vacant lots as opposed to vacant buildings qualified under the Act for conservatorship, now it is clear that they are.


The ABPCA provides the opportunity for citizens (neighboring the subject property), nonprofit organizations, municipalities, school districts, or redevelopment authorities to petition a judge to appoint a responsible party to take charge of a neglected property and bring it into compliance with code standards. The party appointed for this purpose, known as a conservator, is given the responsibility to stabilize, rehabilitate or demolish the structure in order to address seriously blighting conditions that the owner has been unwilling or unable to deal with. However, a conservator does not become owner of the property during this time, but rather a "caretaker."


Once the rehabilitation of the property is completed, the conservator must file a detailed final report with the court. Then, the conservator may petition the court to terminate the conservatorship through either a public or a private sale. Notice of the petition to sell the property must be provided to the property owner and to lien holders, so that they have an opportunity to object. If a sale is proposed, the terms and conditions of the sale are subject to court approval, and the court must be satisfied that the buyer is likely to maintain the property which will ensure the property will remain up to code and in good condition.  A conservator can themselves purchase the property, gaining ownership and terminating the conservatorship.      


Upon selling the property, the conservator provides a final accounting to show that the proceeds of the sale were distributed in the proper manner under the ABPCA. The conservator then gives up their possession of the property (if they are not the purchaser), and the conservatorship is complete.


Amendment for Vacant Lots


Although still somewhat complicated and time-consuming, the Amendment to the ABPCA makes the process more appealing to growers in Pennsylvania. Because the process is now open to vacant lots, it opens up the possibility of using vacant properties for urban farming and green space.  One organization making good use of the ABPCA is The Urban Tree Connection (“UTC”), a Philadelphia based  nonprofit organization that supports renewal efforts in low-income communities by turning abandoned open spaces into various types of gardens, including some devoted to growing fruits and vegetables. In 2010, before the amendments to the ABPCA, the UTC’s successful lawsuit to gain conservatorship of the property that was used to create the Neighborhood Food Central Production Farm allowed for them to become one of the first community groups in Philadelphia to be granted conservatorship under the new law.


Conservatorship Process


In order for a property to qualify for conservatorship under the Act, four mandatory conditions must be satisfied:

  1. The building has not been legally occupied for at least the previous twelve months.

  2. The building has not been actively marketed for at least sixty days prior to the date of the petition.

  3. The building is not subject to an existing foreclosure action.

  4. The building has not been acquired by the existing property owner in the preceding six months, excluding transfers between family members or related companies, unless such transfer resulted from the death of the prior owner.

Further, in addition to those four qualifiers, the property must meet 3 out of 9 the following conditions to qualify for conservatorship:

  1. The building is unfit for human habitation, occupancy or use.

  2. The condition and vacancy of the building materially increase the risk of fire to the building and to adjacent properties.

  3. The building is subject to unauthorized entry leading to potential health and safety hazards and . . . [t]he owner has failed to take reasonable and necessary measures to secure the building [or] [t]he municipality has secured the building in order to prevent such hazards after the owner has failed to do so.

  4. The property is an attractive nuisance to children, including, but not limited to, the presence of abandoned wells, shafts, basements, excavations and unsafe structures.

  5. The presence of vermin or the accumulation of debris, uncut vegetation or physical deterioration of the structure or grounds has created potential health and safety hazards and the owner has failed to take reasonable and necessary measures to remove the hazards.

  6. The dilapidated appearance or other condition of the building negatively affects the economic well-being of residents and businesses in close proximity to the building, including decreases in property value and loss of business, and the owner has failed to take reasonable and necessary measures to remedy appearance or the condition.

  7. The property is an attractive nuisance for illicit purposes, including, prostitution, drug use and vagrancy.

  8. The presence of vermin or the accumulation of debris, uncut vegetation or physical deterioration of the structure or grounds has created potential health and safety hazards and the owner has failed to take reasonable and necessary measures to remove the hazards.

  9. The dilapidated appearance or other condition of the building negatively affects the economic well-being of residents and businesses in close proximity to the building, including decreases in property value and loss of business, and the owner has failed to take reasonable and necessary measures to remedy appearance or the condition.

Role of the Owner


In order for the original owner to avoid a  conservatorship, they must either:

  1. Remedy any code violations or the nuisance or emergency conditions; or

  2. Sell the property subject to the conservatorship.

If these factors are met, and a conservator is appointed, the new Amendment provides that the owner must reimburse the petitioner for all costs incurred by the petitioner in preparing and filing the petition for conservatorship, including a newly-established conservator or developer fee. These costs can add up, and could be a cause for concern for those looking for reimbursement. The Amendment focused on making conservatorship more attractive by allowing a conservator to apply to the court for priority lien status of any borrowed funds that were used to rehabilitate the property. The Amendment also reduced the time in which a conservator must hold a property prior to making application to the Court for subsequent sale of the property from six (6) months to three (3) months.


Conclusion


Conservatorship could potentially be a useful tool for communities to turn vacant buildings and lots into useful space, but is not by itself always a feasible option because it requires a substantial amount of government resources and can take a long time to resolve. Hopefully, as more judges and attorneys become familiar with the ABPCA, it will be more widely used and can help lead to more efficient implementation of the program.


If you are thinking about the possibility of using the ABPCA as a tool remediate a vacant building or lot in your area, speak with an experienced attorney to assist you. Also look at the check list provided by the Conservatorship Best Practices Manual of things to consider as you decide whether or not to file for a conservatorship or agree to serve as a conservator.


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