County establishing land bank (Bycarus Telegraph)

BUCYRUS – Depending on the size of the structure, it  takes only a day or two to tear down a house, a lot less time than it took to build it.

But in reality, property demolitions virtually never happen that quickly. For one, a single demolition can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 for just a modest house, and arriving at who’s going to foot the bill often takes some negotiation. Getting to the point where demolition becomes the agreed-upon best option for a vacant or derelict property can require a far lengthier process.

The last full U.S. Census Bureau count, conducted in 2010, found 2,000 vacant properties scattered around Crawford County, although the great majority are languishing in its two largest municipalities, Bucyrus and Galion. Arriving at a specific number in either city is challenging. Galion Mayor Tom O’Leary estimated this week that there are probably anywhere from 500 to 800 abandoned properties in his city.

County auditor Joan Wolfe said there are 1,544 tax-delinquent properties in the county, or 4.5 percent of the total of 33,856 parcels.

“One way to measure the vacancy rate is to look at all the un-mown lawns,” he said.

“Several of our wards, especially Ward 1, have many derelict and decaying properties,” Bucyrus Mayor Jeff Reser said. “Some are being fixed up, but many will have to be town down. We are trying to put additional funds in the 2016 budget to tear down blighted homes, but funds are tight and we still won’t be able to make a huge dent in the problem for years at the current rate of demolition.”

Crawford County, of course, is not alone in confronting this problem, nor is it a new problem. The stepped-up war against illegal drugs is resulting in an increasing number of vacant houses, which often become tax-delinquent the longer they stay empty, but it was the foreclosure crisis triggering the Great Recession of 2008 that really changed the urban landscape.

It didn’t take long, however, for at least one response to the problem of vacant properties to get off the ground. In Ohio, the effort began in Cuyahoga County, which has 22,000 vacant properties on its tax rolls (Detroit, meanwhile, has twice as many). The state legislature passed a county land bank statute in 2009, and since then about two dozen counties have established land banks as a means of getting a handle on this situation.

Land banks are quasi-governmental corporations with the authority to take over vacant properties that have slipped into tax delinquency. Until this past September, Ohio only allowed them in counties with populations of at least 60,000. Now all counties are free to create a land bank, and Crawford County, with a population of 42,480, is early in the process of doing just that.

“There can be economy-of-scale issues. In other words, do we have enough of these properties? One way to overcome that is working with other land banks. I’m looking into that to make this more economical,” county Prosecutor Matt Crall said.

“The biggest obstacle is how fast we want to push forward and look for funding. If we can apply for grants, we will. If we sell a vacant property, that’s money to fund the program,” commissioner Steve Reinhard said.

“We’ll start with Gary’s seed money, and get the resolutions we need. We’re all in agreement to get this started.”

Less grant money

Grants, however, may not be the resource they once were. Commissioner Doug Weisenauer said the federal Community Development Block Grant program brought just $16,000 to the county last year.

“The CDBG solution is a partial one at best. It’s underwhelming with how much you get,” Galion’s O’Leary said. “I worry about knocking down five houses when there are 500 that need to come down. There’s a thimble-full of resources and a huge need.”

“An odd number is good because that way you won’t have a tie vote,” observed Crall, who added that finding community leaders with real estate and probably banking experience, too, will also be necessary.

“Whoever is selected as the director and board of this new entity will be the key. It has to be someone with vision, experience and dedication to the local area. If it is someone who is just satisfied with tearing down 10 houses a year, it will never reach its full potential and never be self-sustaining,” Bucyrus Law Director Rob Ratliff said.

Choosing which properties to take over and which structures to demolish isn’t likely to present too great a challenge; residents of every municipality in the county have no trouble identifying eyesores they’d like to see removed. But after the land bank takes control of a parcel, it could be confronted by a whole host of thorny issues that go to the heart of what constitutes a community.

“Selling the vacant residential properties won’t result in much profit; usually it will be done at a loss. But homeowners should begin to see an immediate escalation in their property values. That will in turn make the cleared lots worth more, and it becomes a happy, upward spiral on housing,” Ratliff said.

“Sometimes the financial equation may not make sense for the community. I hope this process helps communities take properties and make them economically feasible. I know that’s the overall goal,” Crall said.

O’Leary said he’s glad the county is taking the lead on creating a land bank, but added that “philosophical issues” will be a given once the derelict buildings start coming down.

“If you do it as inexpensively as possible, you get low-end results. If you lower the cost of building a home in a community, there are some nice houses down there on Rogers Street (in Bucyrus) that are probably going to be plagued by this. And different generations look at this differently. Thirtysomethings who want to add vibrancy to a community may look at this differently from someone who is just looking to preserve the community,” he said.

He also said his city of Galion may be interested in keeping rather than selling some of these properties once the land bank takes them over.

“You sit there with a lot from 1857 and it’s too small to build anything on,” he said. But mixing and matching parcels has its own problems.

“You could put more work into administration to split lots rather than just sell them,” county Auditor Wolfe said.

“We have a lot of lots that are built on top of one another. Separation is good for neighborhood stabilization, there are fewer fights and squabbles,” John Rostash, code enforcement officer for the city of Bucyrus, said.

“But our neighborhoods are very dynamic and each one is different. If you’re going to do this, you need to do it right for our communities. It needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

“It’s not normally designed to be fast and there are good reasons for that. Someone’s right to property is in the U.S. Constitution. It shouldn’t be easy for the government to take away your property,” he said.

If Crawford County’s land bank allows homeowners to retain the value in their homes, however, it will be worth it, the prosecutor said.

“The key to success and sustainability of the land bank will be packaging land for future development,” Ratliff said.

“Whether as developer, partner in the development, or just as a facilitator, this is where the land bank can generate ongoing income and sustain itself. This is also where we can see economic growth for the entire county.”

“We can start with the blighted properties and then work from there, start small,” county Treasurer Cole said. “It’s the beginning of a long road.”

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