Local officials learn land banks fight blight

Land reutilization corporations, or land banks for short, were the topic of Tuesday night’s presentation at Washington State Community College.

County, municipal and township officials were joined by a handful of local residents, candidates for office, local contractors and real estate brokers to learn the use of land banks other Ohio counties have in battling blight, abandoned properties and vacant properties in their communities.

The Western Reserve Land Conservancy, which in part addresses urban and rural blight in the creation of county land banks in Ohio, sent two representatives to provide the education, Jim Rokakis, vice president WRLC and director of the Thriving Communities Institute, and Robin Thomas, WRLC land bank program director.

Rokakis likened fighting blight to a civil war battle Tuesday as he explained the history of mass migration, the early 2000s recession and Ohio’s push to revitalize what was left behind.

“In 2007 we’d lost the battle and at the end of a battle you’ve got to find a way to bury the dead,” Rokakis described. “In this context that’s the vacant and abandoned properties.”

But he explained that land banks are used to do more than just demolish buildings falling apart.

He said there are five benefits to installing a county land bank:

1. They can, following due process, take control of vacant and abandoned, tax-delinquent properties.

2. They can reduce the flipping of properties between irresponsible ownership.

3. They can repurpose properties through demolition or rehabilitation.

4. They can transfer properties to qualified end-users.

5. They ultimately can put abandoned properties back on the tax roll, contributing to the community’s economic welfare at large.

In the crowd Tuesday were all three county commissioners, the sheriff, county auditor and treasurer who in some form deal with the fallout of unpaid taxes on vacant and abandoned properties.

Several of the properties mentioned as examples of ones in Marietta which could be candidates for a land bank solution, Commissioner David White pointed out, rest in the floodplain. He noted redevelopment within is nearly impossible once a structure is torn down.

“That’s all caused by (the Federal Emergency Management Administration),” he noted to surrounding attendees Sheriff Larry Mincks, County Auditor Bill McFarland and Deputy Auditor Matthew Livengood.

McFarland said following the meeting that he was in attendance to learn, and he walked away with a greater understanding of what benefits Cuyahoga County has seen.

Meanwhile, Belpre Mayor Mike Lorentz said he plans to do additional research.

“I wonder if it would be more cumbersome for us than it’s worth,” he said, noting only a 34-person staff in the smaller municipality. “We do have our code guy, Leonard Wiggins, but he’s already all over working to attack our blight full time and we just took down one house a month ago and another came down this week and we are trying to work with the law director to seize a few more quickly because they’re a threat to safety.”

Demolition funding is a key resource Rokakis and Thomas explained a land bank can help supply.

They said the grant and state funding initiatives like Moving Ohio Forward’s $75 million grant funds to be leveraged with matching dollars and Neighborhood Initiative Program monies available in two pockets ranging from $80 million to an estimated $350 million are set up to give county land banks legs to stand on.

The pair said a land bank could specifically benefit Washington County in the following ways:

¯ Repurpose vacant lots.

¯ Acquire vacant houses.

¯ Fund demolitions.

¯ Rehabilitate houses through:

¯ Deed in escrow – holding a deed on a property until the contracted individual or developer rehabbing the property has brought it back up to code and possibly requiring owner-occupancy for a length of time.

¯ Direct sale to an approved contractor.

¯ Contract for rehab work and then land bank sale of the property.

¯ Utilize property for vocational program training to rehab and then the sale of the property.

¯ Partner with transitional housing programs, programs for veterans and/or immigration.

¯ Strategic assembly.

For the county to utilize a land bank, first, a consensus would need to begin with the county commissioners signing a resolution to authorize the creation of a land reutilization corporation and authorize the county treasurer to incorporate it. Then the county treasurer would file articles of incorporation with the secretary of state.

Following the incorporation the commissioners would next sign a resolution to designate the corporation as an agent of the county and create an agreement and plan which would then include the structure of a land bank board including the treasurer, two county commissioners, one member from the largest city, one township member and others chosen by the treasurer and commissioners.

Then after an organizational meeting to approve a code of regulations, the county commissioners would need to approve a resolution outlining the agreement and plan for the nonprofit corporation.

‘There are many different forms of blight and different reasons why blight happens,” said Marietta Code Enforcement Officer Wayne Rinehart. “Our hope is after tonight learning the formula we can sit down and talk together (with local officials) and with some knowledge come up with an approach that fits our area.”

Rinehart said the city administration hopes to hold a follow-up meeting with township trustees, municipal officials and county officials within a month to review takeaways from Tuesday night’s meeting and see if members of all stakeholders have an interest in creating one.