Albany, Dougherty Officials Consider Land Bank

Land Bank Update
April 15, 2017

City, county votes imminent on creation of joint land bank authority

ALBANY — The concept of the land bank is nothing new. The first in the country was created in St. Louis in 1973, and there followed land banks in Cleveland in 1976 and Louisville, Ky., in 1989.

The relative success of those endeavors, and the desire to battle blight in the suddenly thriving Atlanta metropolis in the late 1980s, was instrumental in passage of the Georgia Land Bank Act of 1990. Shortly after that legislation made its way through the state Legislature, the city of Atlanta created the Fulton County/City of Atlanta Land Bank Authority.

And while the road from creation to utilization was a long and rocky one in the state’s capital city, the eventual success of that initial land bank became a model that was emulated in Columbus/Muscogee County in 1992, Macon/Bibb County (1996), Savannah/Chatham County (1997), Augusta/Richmond County (1998), and Valdosta/Lowndes County (1999).

By the time the General Assembly updated the Land Bank Act in 2012, legislation creating land bank authorities had been passed in Athens/Clarke County, Statesboro/Bullock County, Rome/Floyd County, LaGrange/Troup County, DeKalb County and, closer to home, Thomasville/Thomas County.

The concept of the land bank is a relatively simple one, as explained by Albany-Dougherty County Planning Services Director Paul Forgey: “A land bank allows for the acquisition of underutilized, blighted or tax delinquent properties to return them to productivity.”

Forgey and Planning and Code Program Specialist Angel Gray, at the urging of such long-time advocates as District 3 Dougherty County Commissioner Clinton Johnson and Ward I Albany City Commissioner Jon Howard, gave both governing bodies an elementary tutorial on land banks at meetings of both boards Monday and Tuesday.

And while self-proclaimed community activist William Wright offered confusing opposition to the concept at the City Commission meeting — “The very poor will be the ones who are damaged without due process” — there appeared to be little standing in the way of expected passage of a joint city/county resolution establishing a land bank authority by the County Commission on Monday and the City Commission at its April 25 meeting.

“I really haven’t gotten a lot of feedback from the city, and while I would never speak for them, judging from their initial reaction (to the proposal), it seemed very positive,” Forgey said Thursday. “I think the approach by both governing boards is that this concept is something that’s been a long time coming.

“I have heard from some of the county folks — Commissioner Johnson and (County Attorney) Spencer Lee have been very supportive of what we discussed. I think this is something that’s been on the county’s radar for some time now.”

Indeed, Johnson said Thursday he’s been pushing for development of a land bank since he was first elected to the County Commission five years ago. He encountered the concept while serving on a statewide GICH (Georgia Investment Community Housing) committee, and he says the time has come for the city and county to take action.

“I think, honestly — and to the detriment of our community — too many surrounding communities have benefited from our blight problems,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, even if a new business moved into our community with 500 new jobs tomorrow, we’d still have blight issues. A land bank offers us a way to transfer blighted properties in our community back onto the tax rolls, while at the same time allowing us to provide more safe, affordable and decent housing opportunities for our citizens.

“I see a land bank as another potentially effective development tool in our tool box.”

Gray told the two commissions that establishing a land bank would serve a number of positive purposes in the community.

“If done right, (a land bank) has the potential to create jobs, enhance property value, stabilize neighborhoods, reduce crime, save on government costs and return blighted properties to the tax base,” she said.

Howard, a staunch advocate of the city’s long, and often painfully bogged-down, fight against blight, said development of a land bank offers an opportunity to address that issue. At the very least, he said Friday, it’s a “step in the right direction.”

“I look around at all of the blight on the east side of town, and I sometimes think it will take an act of God to get us back where we need to be,” Howard said. “But a land bank does give us an opportunity to get these blighted properties, many of which are in areas that are not conducive to development, back into a condition where they might be desirable for other property owners or developers.

“At the very least, it will give us an opportunity to address these absentee slumlords who have done such damage to our community. A land bank would not be a panacea, wouldn’t get rid of all of our dilapidated structures and eyesores. But it would give us the opportunity to start the process.”

Forgey, noting that, by Georgia law, a land bank authority has no eminent domain powers, said the idea behind a land bank is to take control — through gifting, purchases or other means — of properties that have been abandoned by their owners and offer them for sale as potential pieces of redevelopment or neighborhood improvement programs.

“I heard (Wright) mention that a land bank would ‘take property from poor people who were not able to pay their taxes,’ but there’s no way for that to happen,” the planning director said. “A land bank has no eminent domain authority, so there’s no way one could ‘take’ land from anyone. It’s just not going to happen.

“For a land bank to acquire a property, it has to be completely abandoned. We wouldn’t even attempt to purchase a property until it’s been through a tax sale (on the courthouse steps) and been rejected. So we wouldn’t get involved with a property until its owner and the market have turned their backs on the property.”

Lee said that land banks could be used to take over abandoned properties whose taxes “roll over year after year” without any interest shown by the owner of record.

“After seven years, the taxes (from eight years previous) start dropping off the books and are replaced by the new year’s taxes,” Lee said. “These are properties — and, yes, most of them are blighted, with upkeep falling on the city and county — that you’ll never recoup taxes on (other than through such action as that taken by a land bank).”

Perhaps with an eye on the joint city/county Planning Commission, which has drawn fire in recent days for its failure to attract a quorum of its appointed members to hear a rezoning request that impacted key area employer Procter & Gamble, Forgey suggested that the board of directors required to convene on behalf of a land bank authority be made up of individuals who understand such issues as real estate and economic development.

“Our recommendation is that a seven-member board be appointed, with three members appointed by the county and four by the city,” the Planning director said. “But because this board should be made up of individuals who understand the complicated issues associated with property and property acquisition, we suggest that the managers of the city and county recommend board appointments and have the commissions vote on his or her recommendations.”

Johnson, too, said a proposed authority board must include “the right people.”

“That board has to be made up of developers, Realtors, home builders, people who know how to best utilize available funding,” the county commissioner said. “This can’t be one of those situations where the appointments are made based on who knows who. We have to have a board whose members understand these complex issues.”

Still, Howard warned, city and county leaders must stay abreast of all land bank activity.

“We have to, as elected officials, have the fortitude to be visionaries,” the Ward I commissioner said. “No one will forget that the city made a bad calculation when it accepted the donated radiator shop land (just east of the Flint River). It turned out to be contaminated and cost us a whole lot of money to clean up.

“But in a city in which 14 percent of the houses are either vacant or blighted, we have to take action. I really think the time has come for us to make this happen.”

Source: Albany Herald


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