Commissioners indicate support for creating land bank

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By Steve Robb, Messenger staff journalist


The Athens County Commissioners appear headed toward creating a land bank, although it likely won’t happen until the first of the year.

A land bank is a mechanism for dealing with abandoned, dilapidated houses that have tax delinquencies. County Treasurer Bill Bias is recommending a land bank be formed as a way of getting rid of blight.

“Outside of the city (of Athens) we have a dire need,” Bias said at Tuesday’s meeting of the county commissioners. Robin Darden Thomas, land bank program director for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, gave a presentation at the meeting.

“I don’t have any issues with it. I need to understand some things a little better and make sure what I do is correct,” Commissioner Charlie Adkins said. “I’ve never been against a land bank.”

Commissioner Chris Chmiel said he “absolutely” wants to see a land bank formed.

Commission President Lenny Eliason expressed support, but also said the timing is bad.

“Right now, I’m not ready to do anything until we get past our budget,” Eliason said.

For the next few weeks the commissioners will be developing the county’s 2018 budget. Two commissioners would serve on the land bank board — which will include developing policies and an agreement with the commissioners — and that would take time away from working on the budget, Eliason said.

It will take a resolution from commissioners authorizing the county treasurer to incorporate a land bank as a nonprofit, and another resolution designating the land bank as the county’s agent for dealing with blight.

In May a group of volunteers from Trimble Twp. urged the commissioners to create a land bank, and Nelsonville officials have been looking at a county land bank as a possible way of dealing with blighted homes in the city. Nelsonville City Manager Charles Barga and Councilman Ed Mash attended Tuesday’s meeting, as did Athens Planner Paul Logue.

The initial land bank board would consist of two commissioners, the county treasurer, a representative of Athens (as the largest city in the county) and a township representative. The five member board can be increased to seven or nine.

Darden Thomas explained that a land bank can take control of blighted, tax-delinquent homes in several ways — including by foreclosure through the courts or county board of revision, by people turning over deeds rather than go through the foreclosure process, by donations of property, by purchasing it and from forfeited properties that have gone through foreclosure but had no buyers.

One source of funding for land banks has been demolition money obtained through the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, although Darden Thomas said it’s not known if funding will be available for future land banks. Currently, 46 of Ohio’s 88 counties have land banks.

The OFHA money is provided on a reimbursement basis, meaning land banks must have some upfront money.

One option for funding land banks is increasing a 5 percent fee on delinquent property tax collections (and interest) to 10 percent. Athens City Schools Treasurer Matt Bunting has opposed this because it would take money away from schools, although Bias said he believes the lost money would be made up by increased property values and increased collections.

Land banks also can take out loans, accept grants and donations, and receive revenue from the sale of property, Darden Thomas said. Money also can come from county coffers, but Bias said the commissioners have made it clear that method of funding won’t happen, and Bias said he agrees with that stance.

Although in most instances the dilapidated homes would be demolished, Darden Thomas said houses can be rehabilitated if the land bank can find a buyer willing to undertake the project. She said land where homes have been demolished can be used for development, remain green space or donated to a charitable cause (Habitat for Humanity for example).