Tax program spurs some to buy lots

Michele Smithmyer and her husband, Charles, lived near Mansion Park for about 20 years, then bought Redevelopment Authority ground in northwest Juniata, built a house and moved there in 2005.

The Smithmyers were among about 20 families that took advantage of the Keystone Opportunity Expansion Zone tax abatement program in effect on authority land in that area of Juniata at the time.

On Friday, the Smithmyers became part of a mini-rush to buy leftover lots to add to yards, increase privacy and guarantee against crowding by neighbors, following the expiration of tax abatement – and the expiration of the corollary requirement that land buyers build on the lots they acquire.

The Smithmyers bought two 50-by-100-foot lots for $101 each that are behind their property.

“We bought [them] just to give us the privacy and to up the value of our house,” Smithmyer said. “[Now] nothing can go in behind us.”

When they were raising their three kids in the city, the proximity of neighbors with kids of their own and of the facilities at the Mansion Park athletic complex was a blessing.

Now that their kids are raised, it’s good to sit out in the “very nice, very peaceful” backyard and view the woods and the wildlife.

Deer come often, and once they even saw a fox.

The lots they acquired are on the edge of what the city called the approximately 10-acre “Keystone” tract, which was a primary development objective for the Juniata KOEZ, approved around 2000, along with an approximately 11-acre tract in the middle-west of Juniata.

Those never got developed, despite the tax-abatement, because the authority never had the approximately $50,000 necessary to bring an access road and sewer and water lines to the boundaries of those developments. The road and utility service would have made it financially feasible for a developer to build homes there, said senior planner Nic Ardizzone and city Planning Director Lee Slusser.

Aside from those tracts, there were other lots scattered through the KOEZ area, and many of the ones that didn’t attract buyers – including the approximately dozen sold so far – are unsuitable for building on, according to Slusser.

Asked if he was concerned that selling off pieces of those large tracts could preclude any realistic possibility of ever developing them, Slusser seemed unfazed.

“The current real estate market is slow,” he said.

Regardless of the ultimate likelihood of developing any of the lots, selling them now, after expiration of the KOEZ, will put them back on the tax rolls, he said.

They will be on the rolls for the first time in probably 85 years, as they ended up with the Redevelopment Authority after being taken for taxes after the Great Depression.

“[The KOEZ] was a successful program,” Slusser said. “Now it’s successfully going away.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.