Demolitions have created abandoned lot upkeep woes

The city’s cost of mowing the lots in on the increase.

By the numbers

$1.1 million: Amount of federal and state money the city has spent on demolitions over the last five years.

320: Number of homes the city has demolished over the last five years.

$90,000: Amount of money the city spends each year on code enforcement and abadoned lot mowing.

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More than $1.1 million has been spent over the last five years to demolish about 320 abandoned Springfield homes, and now officials are dealing with an expensive problem of maintaining the empty lots.

While the demolition program is considered a success, it has increased the need to mow abandoned lots during the spring and summer. Government officials are now trying to put the properties back into productive use and lessen the amount of lawn cutting they have to pay for.

The city spends about $90,000 per year on mowing vacant lots, abandoned lots and code enforcement actions each spring and summer.

The large number of abandoned lots can be difficult to maintain during rainy months in spring and summer, said Community Development Director Shannon Meadows.

“I’ve said it before: ‘Our success is also our failure’,” Meadows said.

The city’s mowing was inadequate last spring, and city officials say they need to do everything they can to improve this spring, said Mayor Warren Copeland. He received several complaints from residents about the tall grass and weeds, but said he and other staff members were already passing on their own complaints.

“It was a great year for growing grass,” Copeland said. “That’s why the golf courses all had nice green grass. But that also means we’ve got a problem with all our vacant lots.”

Newly-created programs such as the Mow-To-Own, Clark County Land Reutilization Corp. and rain garden programs are designed to put the land back into productive use.

The programs in place are a great start, said Copeland. But the city has to do other things to reduce the amount of mowing done each spring by putting those lots back into productive use.

“It’s such a visible problem,” he said.

More local demand

Vacant lots typically have a responsible party, while many of the abandoned lots have been forfeited to the state — which the city is required by law to maintain. The current abandoned lot list has about 320 properties, including 185 that have been forfeited to the state. Springfield has no choice but to maintain them.

With recent cuts to both local government and Community Development Block Grant funds, Springfield has less money for the city’s Code Enforcement department, Meadows said.

Since 2010, Springfield has demolished about 320 homes using money from the Greater Ohio Moving Forward, Neighborhood Stabilization Program and Community Development Block Grant. It is projected to demolish about 35 more properties this year.

The city also performs five to 10 emergency demolitions per year, which typically are the result of fires or other structural emergencies that have made buildings unsafe to the public. The city typically spends about $25,000 per year on emergency demolitions.

The number of properties forfeited to the state has also recently increased in the aftermath of the national foreclosure crisis, she said.

“We’re left with less federal money, less state money and much higher local demand,” Meadows said.

New programs

The city and Clark County have both worked in recent months to create ways to put vacant lots back into productive use.

While the problem won’t be solved immediately, officials are creating more tools to address the issue, Meadows said.

City commissioners recently approved the Mow-To-Own Program, a sweat equity initiative which will allow residents to mow abandoned property next to their own and eventually allow them to take ownership of the lot – without having to pay the back taxes on the property.

In some cases, the taxes are so expensive that the lot will likely never be purchased through the private market, in turn creating “a spiral of more and more property that no one is ever going to use,” Meadows said.

The Mow-To-Own program gives neighborhoods a platform for direct action, said Tom Dwyer, the city’s Community Development Director. That way, residents won’t have to wait for the city to mow vacant lots during the spring and summer months, Dwyer said.

“It cuts out the middle man, essentially,” Dwyer said.

The city currently has about 30 properties which qualify for the program immediately and more which can be acquired through the land reutilization program. They’ve had about 20 people interested in the program so far, Dwyer said.

Springfield is also participating in the Clark County Land Reutilization Corp., a non-profit organization designed to help return blighted or abandoned properties to productive use. In some cases, the land bank can rehabilitate homes or demolish them and find another use for the property.

Since it was established last year, the land bank has purchased four homes with money from a $680,000 state grant. The land bank is expected to purchase at least 27 homes by September.

‘Waist high’

The grass in the three contiguous parcels next to Carla Tamplin’s property at 301 W. Euclid Ave. used to be a place where children could play sports in the summertime.

However, the city’s increased demand for mowing in the spring and summer means crews are not able to get to the vacant lots as quickly as in the past. So the grass won’t get mowed for weeks, including lots nest to Tamplin.

“It rained in the spring and the city didn’t have the resources to get to it right away,” Tamplin said. “The grass was probably waist high.”

Tamplin and her husband, Zach, are hoping to participate in either the Mow-To-Own program or the Clark County land bank to help take ownership of those lots. It provides incentive, she said, to maintain the property.

If they were to take over the property, they’ll have the freedom to add a shed or a garden, she added.

“If you kept it mowed, it would be a much more hospitable place,” Tamplin said.

Outside the box

The city’s Stormwater Utility Department is also beginning to explore placing rain gardens on abandoned lots to help keep stormwater out of the combined sewer system. It was hoping to have one completed last year, but budget issues forced the project into 2015, said Stormwater Coordinator Sky Schelle.

The city budgeted $20,000 for the project this year, Schelle said, and he hopes to convert one property into a rain garden each year. The department trying to buy software so it can design the rain gardens in-house, Schelle said.

“The more we do, the more efficient we can become to get the costs down,” Schelle said.

The money would pay for a new catch basin, plants, an overflow structure and excavation, Schelle said. The rain gardens would be designed to be dry within 72 hours of a rain event.

“We can’t do a large number right away, but we’re always looking for out of the box ideas,” Schelle said.

He’s also working with the Promise Neighborhood and Clark Community Habitat for Humanity on turning a portion of the current community gardens into an orchard on the corner of Linden Avenue and Rice Street. They’re hoping to get a grant to purchase trees for the property and the project could begin in 2016.

The department is also hoping to receive a grant to help South Fountain Preservation place trees on vacant property on the city’s south side. Both projects will help with stormwater retention, but also beautify the area.

“There’s so much of it, we have to do something unique with it,” Schelle said.