Land bank prepares to acquire properties

LISBON – Columbiana County’s new land bank held its inaugural organizational meeting recently in preparation for acquiring and demolishing abandoned and dilapidated properties once funding is in place.

County commissioners voted in April to create the Land Reutilization Corp., which is the structure created by state law that allows the county to get into the land bank business so it can acquire and demolish blighted homes and buildings that are subject to delinquent property tax foreclosure.

The law requires the governing board consist of five to nine members, with the automatic members being two commissioners, the county treasurer, and a representative from the largest city. Filling those slots are commissioners Jim Hoppel and Mike Halleck, Treasurer Linda Bolon, and Salem Mayor John Berlin. The required fifth member will be St. Clair Township Trustee Jim Hall, representing townships.

The board was then expanded to seven, with East Palestine Village Manager Pete Monteleone and East Liverpool City Councilwoman Sherrie Curtis named to those at-large positions.

The board is being assisted by Robin Thomas of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, which has helped in the creation of other land banks in Northeast Ohio. She is doing this free of charge, although her organization is likely to qualify for additional government grants by providing assistance.

Commissioners are moving quickly to create the land bank so the board can meet the July 31 deadline for seeking federal housing demolition money available to land banks through the Ohio Housing Finance Authority. Approximately $10.5 million is available during the next funding round.

County Development Director Tad Herold will take on the duties of managing the land bank program without any additional compensation, at least for now. He and his office will likely receive some money for administrative costs from any state or federal grants that are obtained. Halleck said commissioners will provide some “seed money” to get the land program up and running until grant money begins arriving.

State law also allows land banks to be funded with up to 5 percent of delinquent property taxes collected annually by the county, if the board so decides.

While the land bank is a quasi-government program, Thomas said they must comply with the state’s public meeting/public records laws and must meet at least quarterly. They are also subject to routine annual audits by the state auditor’s office, the same as any other government agency.

Halleck also addressed the concerns of some proponents of limited government who recently attended a commissioners meeting to express their concern about creation of the land bank. They are concerned the land bank will be used to force private property owners to sell their land, which can already done when the property being acquired is used for a direct public purpose, such as a new highway. The U.S. Supreme Court expanded that to include property taken for a public “benefit,” such as a private development that generates additional tax revenue.

“That’s not the purpose of this, for the government to go out and start taking people’s property … It’s to clean up the county” by acquiring and tearing down abandoned homes and buildings that have become eyesores, Halleck said.

Thomas said commissioners created the land bank and they can dissolve it, too, should they deem it necessary.

While waiting to obtain grant money from the state, Thomas said Herold and the board can begin compiling a list of properties they would want to acquire.

The new board also adopted a standard code of regulations, and Herold indicated they will also add their own operating guidelines to further spell out what properties can be acquired and for what. Any community wanting to have a home acquired and demolished will need to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the board, which has yet to be drafted.