Is local land bank best answer for blight? (Chillicothe Gazette)

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Is local land bank best answer for blight? (Chillicothe Gazette)

CHILLICOTHE – Everyone’s driven past them: once-new structures that are now only shadows of their former selves, abandoned, overgrown by weeds, sometimes fire-damaged.

They are the buildings that define neighborhood blight and leave communities such as Ross County struggling to compel their owners to either fix them up or tear them down and to make good on the taxes that are owed.

Jim Rokakis, a former Cleveland city councilman, Cuyahoga County treasurer and now director of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities Institute, plans on visiting Ross County after the November election to show how creating a land bank could provide the local community with the weapon it needs to do something about those properties.

Rokakis was a driving force behind the state’s 2009 county land bank statute and has been an active in helping communities set up land banks, having established around 25 already with 16 more in the works.

His interest in the land bank concept — which creates a nonprofit, quasi-governmental corporation with authority to take control of vacant and abandoned tax-delinquent properties for rehabilitation or demolition — stems from his experience in Cuyahoga County around the beginning of the last decade when the bottom began to fall out of the mortgage market, leading to a barrage of foreclosures not only in the Cleveland area, but in communities everywhere.

“By 2006 and 2007, Cleveland, which was the epicenter of the mortgage foreclosure crisis, had been so badly damaged, we were no longer talking about stopping foreclosures, we were now talking about dealing with the glut of vacant and abandoned properties that would never be occupied again,” he said. “We looked around the country and found this thing called a county land bank started by a guy named Dan Kildee … and he came across this idea of creating kind of a quasi-public entity that had extraordinary powers to take tax-delinquent and abandoned properties.”

The key is that entity had to be a local one with a vested interest in either rehabilitation or demolition to prepare the land for a fresh use.

As Chillicothe continues to deal with nuisance property issues, county government is dealing with foreclosure and tax delinquency problems. According to the Ross County Clerk of Courts Office, there have been 179 foreclosure actions filed so far this year, with 88 of those being closed. The Ross County Auditor’s Office reports 3,372 of the county’s 43,018 real estate parcels have past-due tax amounts, with delinquency being the tag given to a parcel with any amount of tax that is past due.

The Tax Compliance and Assistance Office, a joint effort of the county prosecutor’s and treasurer’s offices focusing on collection of delinquent property taxes, reveals the scope of the problem when it reports that it collected more than $2.5 million in delinquent taxes during 2014.

So should Ross County look to deposit its trust to address abandoned property issues in a land bank concept? Opinions are varied.

Republican mayoral candidate Nancy Ames has mentioned the land bank concept a couple of times during her campaign, including once during a mayoral town hall recently. She said she has been following the progress of land banks in other communities and called it a definite possibility for the local area. The Ross County commissioners already have a Community Improvement Corporation in place, she said, which could be the designee to run a land bank, and she said the city and county have already worked well together to demolish properties through a Moving Ohio Forward grant.

“Having a viable land bank increases property values and makes neighborhoods better,” Ames said. “It’s all about making better neighborhoods and making Chillicothe a better place to live.”

One of her opponents, Democrat Luke Feeney, said he is willing to explore the possibility of working with the county on a land bank approach.

“Land banks have unique powers to deal with these abandoned properties in ways that cities and counties simply cannot on their own — they’re able to operate efficiently and cost-effectively. The devil is always in the details, and ultimately the creation of a land bank is up to the county commissioners and the county treasurer. I have great confidence in that group, and I am looking forward to working with them as mayor to explore the opportunities a land bank would give this community, along with other ways we can strengthen our neighborhoods.”

Independent mayoral candidate Joe Sharp had not responded by press time to an email question regarding land banks sent to all three candidates.

Ross County Commissioner Steve Neal said commissioners have had discussions about the possibility of a land bank and that he’s willing to continue those talks with the next city administration. He said commissioners do have some concerns, however, that would need to be worked through.

“Our perspective is, we don’t want to create another bureaucracy if we don’t really need it,” Neal said. “You’re going to have to hire someone to manage that program. Obviously, we can see the benefits, but is it enough benefit to justify the cost? Those are the kinds of things we have to weigh.

“I think the other issue is kind of a legal issue with regard to how easy should it be to take someone’s property. There’s a philosophical issue there that I don’t think we’ve completely thought through and come to a consensus on.”

County treasurers play a large role in any land bank operation, and Ross County Treasurer Jerry Byers said he’s been asked recently to take a fresh look at the possibility locally.

“There is no question that land banks have proven to be an effective tool in communities dealing with significant vacant and abandoned property problems,” Byers said. “Those are situations where entire neighborhoods have just been abandoned. What we need to consider for Ross County is whether or not a land bank would be the right tool for the issues we have.”

Rokakis said land bank boards are made up of five, seven or nine members. Normally serving on them are the county treasurer, two county commissioners, one member from the largest city in the county, one township member if at least two townships have a population of greater than 10,000 people and others selected by agreement of the treasurer and two commissioners. The board would approve a code of regulations for the land bank; set policies for acquisition, demolition, rehabilitation or other disposition of properties; approve contracts and oversee financial issues; and hire an executive director.

He said that while Ross County did receive about $303,000 through the Moving Ohio Forward program that Ames mentioned, it has left money on the table through a recent allocation of $70 million in Hardest Hit funds that went only to counties that had active land banks.

Rokakis said he is encouraged by the interest from city and county officials who have indicated a willingness to meet with him after the election, including multiple inquiries he’s had from city council candidate Josh Cartee, and he hopes to work with local officials as the new year begins to get a land bank started locally.

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