The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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July 29, 2013

Fighting blight: Facebook page singles out decrepit properties

— Alex Barron is tired of seeing the blight in his neighborhood and community, so he’s tapping into the power of social media to spur action.

The Dale man has launched a Facebook community page, “Johnstown Pennsylvania City of Abandonment,” encouraging his neighbors to speak out on abandoned properties throughout Greater Johnstown.

“If major changes are not put into effect from the ground up immediately, this town will end up another statistic of bad management,” Barron posted in the City of Abandonment introduction.

“One very common byproduct of abandoned buildings and homes is the creation of a haven for drug dealers, felons and the homeless – but also a critical safety issue to children and security of all residents and surrounding properties.”

Barron admits the campaign was sparked by his personal battle over an abandoned Arthur Street structure beside his residence.

The building near the former Dale School has been an eyesore and safety hazard for years, said Barron, who rents a neighboring home from his cousin, Nelson Lowes.

“I have been working through several channels to ask why nothing was done,” Barron said. “I was not getting an answer.”

Lowes said he was trying to sell the home, which has been in his family since 1950. He invited Barron to move in because the vacant house was burglarized several times.

“I needed someone to protect it,” Lowes said.

But problems did not leave the neighborhood. Barron said the abandoned house next door has been a gathering spot for troublemakers.

“I’ve had the police at this house next door 15 times, maybe more,” he said.

“They were coming in through the basement door.”

Police visits resulted in numerous arrests for trespassing, underage drinking and the like, Barron said. One partier was found to be a wanted felon.

Barron said when he checked with Dale Borough police, he learned the homeowner had never been cited for a code violation. Checking further, he was advised against filing private legal action until the borough’s code enforcement efforts work their way through the court.

Barron is planning to attend a Dale Borough Council meeting on Aug. 13, where he will ask the same questions he has been asking whoever will listen.

“What do I do?” Barron said. “That’s what I want to know.”

Meanwhile, Barron is rallying support by taking pictures of other abandoned houses throughout Greater Johnstown and posting them on the Abandoned City community page. He is calling Facebook followers to encourage authorities to clean up the region.

Dale police Sgt. Greg Keselyak said the property owner beside Barron’s home has been notified. He said the county Tax Claim Bureau lists the owner as Larry Hill of Bradford Woods in suburban Pittsburgh. There is no published phone listing for that name.

The absentee property owner illustrates the biggest problem with fighting blight, Keselyak said. It takes time to identify, locate and contact out-of-town owners. And the process slows even more if the owner fails to respond, he added.

“I have one guy who works four days a week on property maintenance complaints,” Keselyak said. “That’s still not enough.”

Borough employees boarded up the offending Arthur Street house and police will continue pressing for a permanent solution, he said. If there is no resolution, the borough could have the building razed and place a lien on the lot to recover the cost, he said.

“I don’t know if the borough has the resources for that,” Keselyak said. “We are between a rock and a hard place. Some residents don’t feel that is enough, but there is not much more that we can do.”

Dale is not alone. Cambria-Somerset Council of Governments’ Regional Code Agency provides code enforcement services to Dale and 10 other municipalities, spokesman Ed Kline said.

“It is very difficult because of absentee property owners,” Kline said. “It goes through the magisterial court and sometimes up to county court. Sometimes that takes a while.

“We have the same situation almost everywhere.”

See the group's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/cityabandon

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