Weekly Feature

2012-04-04 / Front Page

County land bank waiting on approval

Cheektowaga Editor

The formation of an Erie County land bank took two important steps forward last week.

In an effort to combat the plague of vacant and abandoned properties throughout the area, the County Legislature unanimously approved the creation of a county land bank, and the county joined with the cities of Buffalo, Lackawanna and Tonawanda to submit a joint application to New York State.

A land bank is an entity that takes control of a vacant, often rundown, property to refurbish, sell or demolish it.

“Any additional funding from the land bank fund for properties in Tonawanda would be a benefit,” said Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Anthony Caruana. “The town does receive some Community Development Block Grant funding for dealing with problem properties, but this funding has been cut to its lowest level in the 34-year history of the program. The CDBG money can only be spent in the town’s low-moderate income neighborhoods, whereas the land bank funds could be used for any vacant property in the county.”

Now it’s just the wait-and-see game as to whether or not the powers that be in Albany accept the application. It’s a competitive process, since the state’s Land Bank Act of 2011 dictated that only 10 land banks would be authorized throughout the state.

“Decreased property values, blight and crime are costly to local governments and result in a cycle of disinvestment for neighborhoods across Erie County,” said Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz during a press conference on Friday. “By working with our partners in Buffalo, Lackawanna and Tonawanda, as well as all of the towns and villages on our abandoned and tax-delinquent property problem, we have put together a powerful countywide approach that I am confident the state will approve.”

The new land bank, which would be called the Buffalo Erie Niagara Land Improvement Corporation, will be charged with simplifying the process to dispose of tax-delinquent, vacant, abandoned and foreclosed properties. It will take ownership of vacant properties and either rehabilitate or demolish them.

According to the Erie County Department of Real Property Tax Services, there are more than 73,000 delinquent tax liens in Erie County. That equates to more than $53.5 million owed in taxes to the county. A majority (64 percent) of the properties are in the City of Buffalo, but all cities, towns and villages are affected.

“I enthusiastically support this proposal. It represents a tremendous opportunity for us to attack the blight that is creeping into too many of our neighborhoods. It is long overdue,” said Erie County Legislator Kevin Hardwick, a Republican who represents a portion of the Town of Tonawanda.

The town’s vacancy rate has remained stable, at less than 3 percent, for the last four years, which represents a healthy housing market, according to Caruana.

“We have many well-maintained, quality built homes for families, and this fact has kept them occupied,” he said. “However, there are two low-moderate income neighborhoods that have an elevated vacancy rate, Sheridan Parkside, about 12 percent, and Old Town, about 8 percent, due to a higher rental housing unit component.”

The town’s Community Development Office led by James Hartz has been actively revitalizing these neighborhoods with the CDBG funding that the municipality receives annually.

“We have been buying many of these properties and bank many for future use. We have also made them available for new builds as we have done for the Parkside, Old Town and Kenilworth areas,” said Caruana.

Additionally, there are roughly 20,000 vacant parcels in Erie County that would be eligible for inclusion in the land bank.

The state’s deadline for applying was March 30. According to the supervisor, the application should be approved or denied by May.

Editor Darlene M. Donohue contributed to this report.

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