Officials note Athens County Land Bank progress

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By Larry Di Giovanni Messenger Staff Journalist


Progress is being made on the Athens County Land Bank, with nearly a dozen active projects being eyed for potential acquisition, possibly later this year.

Eleven such properties are located throughout the county, including three vacant, dilapidated residential properties in Nelsonville.

City Manager Charles Barga shared an update about the Land Bank on Monday evening with Nelsonville City Council members and the audience. The Nelsonville properties are located at 98 Franklin St., 394 Madison St., and 708 Poplar St. The properties may be among the first properties the Land Bank will either purchase itself, or acquire through other means such as a donated deed to a title — one reason being their “end users” have been identified. End users are those who have filed paperwork with the fledgling Land Bank, which was was created in early January, to become the ultimate owner of the property.

If the Land Bank acquires any or all of the properties outright, the end users would buy the property from the Land Bank at a price “close to fair market value,” said Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel, a Land Bank board member and the board’s chair.

The news that Nelsonville’s three properties are among the first 11 “active projects” is good news for the financially strapped city, a place where officials say might have as many as 170 vacant homes. Many are property-tax delinquent, and acquiring them — followed by demolishing them and building new homes in some cases or adding to green space in others — will once again turn into property tax-paying spaces that help the county’s and city’s budget coffers.

Asked about the Land Bank’s potential first purchases Wednesday in his office, Chmiel said the very first projects that will likely be slated for purchase as active projects are those with clear titles. That means they don’t have any liens placed against them that would need to be resolved first.

One of the special powers a land bank has, Chmiel said, is the ability to remove delinquent property taxes in making a property purchase. The Land Bank is also working with the county’s Board of Revision to create an expedited process for Land Bank matters involving the property acquisition process. That should happen soon, he added.

Chmiel also noticed one common item in particular about each of the three Nelsonville residential properties: the end users are all next door to the properties they plan to purchase.

For instance, Grant Guda, the Nelsonville City Council’s newest member, lives on Poplar Street and plans to purchase an adjoining property at 708 Poplar. He had plans to do so before joining council, he said, and wants to demolish the disheveled residence to create more green space for his family.

“My wife and I expect to have children one day and so we want to have a safe property that provides plenty of room,” he said, adding that the property has been vacant for about eight years and may have asbestos and even black mold as potential hazards to be removed during future demolition.

In fact, the Land Bank’s procedural rules to date offer a “sidelot disposition program” that gives preference to neighbors of dilapidated properties as being its end users.

Athens County Commission President Lenny Eliason said he is confident that the Land Bank has made enough progress on “active projects” to make acquisitions before the end of the year, and perhaps even sooner. One issue the entity does have is only having about $100,000 available to make purchases. Funding that comes from penalties assessed on late property tax payments made to the county will take time to grow.

The Land Bank also has a “chicken and egg, which comes first?” challenge of sorts. There are federal grant funds available that equate to about $12,500 per property to be used for demolition purposes. However, in order apply for the funds, a Land Bank is first required to have demolished some properties. That is slow going for the county, because the Land Bank is still a brand new entity and is still working tweaking details on all of its detailed procedures as it moves along, Chmiel said.

Chmiel also mentioned a property in Shade, across from the Lodi General Store, and one on New Marshfield Road in Waterloo Township, as being among the first two to be acquired because although tax delinquent in one case, both have “free and clear title.”

Also on the list of active projects is the former Eagles building in Nelsonville with Councilman Daniel Sherman identified as the end user. He wishes to turn the building, which also housed several businesses along Washington Street, into a boutique hotel and is working on grant funding and donations from private citizens to make it happen.