Champaign County considers land bank to fight blight

Champaign County leaders are researching if it makes sense to start a land bank, part of a growing trend in which rural counties across Ohio are looking for ways to deal with a glut of vacant and abandoned properties.

The Logan-Union-Champaign Regional Planning Commission is collecting data from Urbana and villages in Champaign County to determine how many abandoned properties are dotting the county, commissioner Director Dave Gulden said.

Counties can use land banks to access state funding to purchase, demolish and redevelop abandoned and blighted properties.

“It’s a useful tool for properties that are tax delinquent and it’s a way to get them moving again,” Gulden said.

A 2015 report from the Greater Ohio Policy Center shows the tool has become more popular statewide. The first land bank started in Cuyahoga County in 2008 in the early stages of the Great Recession. By April last year, more than 20 land banks across Ohio oversaw the demolition of about 15,000 blighted properties, the report says.

“While Ohio’s county land banks are still early in their development, and many have yet to implement all the tools available to them, this report concludes that land banks are having an impact in their communities and hold great promise for the future,” it says.

In North Lewisburg a handful of properties have become a nuisance, Village Administrator Andy Yoder said. Some have vacant lots with tall grass, while others include empty, deteriorating buildings. Taxes on those sites have also gone unpaid for years.

“Once they’re abandoned and they start to go, they just get worse,” Yoder said pointing to a single-story white house on Gunn Street. More than $5,400 in property taxes on the site have gone unpaid.

The LUC is still collecting data so it’s not yet clear exactly how many properties could be affected if a land bank is created in Champaign County.

The Ohio Policy Center cites the city of Dayton in its report. It showed in 2006, even before the recession, Dayton lost out on $8.7 million in unpaid property taxes and spent more than $3.5 million on city services to blighted and abandoned buildings.

The city has since demolished more than 1,000 blighted buildings, in part through $6.5 million in state funding made available through the Moving Ohio Forward program, said Aaron Sorrell, director of the Planning and Community Development Department for Dayton.

“The whole purpose of the land bank is to get abandoned property back into productive use and back onto the tax rolls where it’s benefiting everybody,” he said. “It has been a great tool to do just that and be able to acquired those properties that have been mired in title issues or ownership issues that were serving no purpose and were a huge detriment to our neighborhoods.”

For smaller communities, land banks can be effective, Sorrell said. But it also means local leaders need to decide whether there’s enough need to start a new organization with a limited role.

The state could make as much as $97 million in funding available to counties later this year to remove blighted properties through the Neighborhood Initiative Program, Champaign County Commissioner Steve Hess said. But that funding is only available to counties with land banks, so local officials are working with the LUC to see if such a program makes sense.

The program would provide a maximum of $25,000 per structure to be demolished and could be reimbursed to counties after the work is complete.

“We’ve got the ability to do some things with particular problem properties now but this gives us another tool in the toolbox to deal with a specific set of problems,” Hess said. “It wouldn’t be applied to everything and it’s not meant to be applied to everything.”

Clark County started a land bank in 2014 and initially received $680,000 through a federal Neighborhood Initiative Program, said Tom Hale, executive director of the Clark County Land Bank.

The program has led to the razing of 15 properties in Springfield and more than 20 sites are at various stages in the pipeline, he said. About 10 properties have since been transferred to new owners to be redeveloped.

“The land bank is almost exclusively working in the city trying to help remove blighted properties and trying to return some of these to productive status,” Hale said.

If Champaign County’s land bank does move forward, the LUC would likely administer it, Hess said.

“One thing we did say is we don’t want to be in the property management business,” Hess said. “The land bank would want to get those (properties) turned around and get them back into private ownership so someone can pay taxes on them as quickly as possible.”

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