County land bank will help Berea

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County land bank will help Berea

August 13, 2009 [Jarrod Zickefoose, Sun News]

BEREA — The city plans to take advantage of the newly created Cuyahoga County Land Bank, a program designed to improve neighborhoods that have foreclosed or abandoned properties.

It’s a step toward urban renewal, even in rural areas. The nonprofit land bank is the first one in the state. The legislation that created the venture was signed into Ohio law earlier this year.

Berea Mayor Cyril Kleem, one of seven members who sits on the county board, said it’s a program that is needed not only in Cleveland but Berea as well.

“This is ground-breaking,” Kleem said. “Each neighborhood that has tax-delinquent property could qualify for the program. It can have a tremendous impact here in Berea and across the county.”

A major key to a land bank is that the program provides a faster timeline to take troubled properties and turn them around. What normally takes up to two years, the land bank can acquire tax-foreclosures properties in 45 days.

The independent corporation can acquire, manage and dispose of vacant lots across the county. It can purchase tax-delinquent property wholesale from banks and other similar companies, turning them into community gardens, water-retention areas that absorb runoff and ease the burden on storm water systems or create urban parks. Through its authority, the program can erase debt on property titles.

A main thrust is to gain control of properties that have been ravaged through sub-prime lending. Questionable buyers then grab the land at ridiculously low prices and “flip” the homes to unsuspecting buyers, making easy money.

The seven-member board includes Cuyahoga County Treasurer James Rokakis; two mayors, Kleem and South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo; two county officials that Cuyahoga County Commissioners appoint; a Cleveland council member and a Cleveland regional development official.

Kleem, who said he was likely appointed due to his urban planning background, said the land bank can be up and running to borrow between $50 million to $70 million — by issuing bonds to pay for the program — by late summer.

Kleem said a shining example of a successfully working land bank is Genesee County in Michigan. According to published reports, that land bank enhanced a $3 billion tax base by $112 million and brought $30 million to help revamp a city main street. The program also attracted a firm to redevelop a historic district.

Rebecca Corrigan, executive director of the Berea Community Development Corp., said the program is not only a “huge” resource for residential property but commercial as well.

“We are seeing, unfortunately, some commercial property being abandoned. The banks are taking them back and the foreclosure process can be lengthy that way,” Corrigan said. “We are hoping the flexibility of the county land bank will get these properties through the foreclosure process quicker and turn that land into useful projects.”

In Berea, this program also can allow homeowners to acquire land next to them that they can use as side yards, turning an eyesore into a potential community garden or even a ball field or walking trail.

Kleem said Berea may not have rows of foreclosed or empty homes but there are three, four, even five located throughout a neighborhood that are “eyesores.”

“Areas like Polish Village and the north end of town can benefit under this program,” he said. “Each neighborhood here can improve, grow into a more vibrant community and enrich the lives of those who live there.”