Franklin County land bank initiative moves forward

MALONE — Jeremy S. Evans, CEO of the Franklin County Economic Development Corp., addressed county legislators and provided an update on his office’s work to establish a land bank in Franklin County that would aim to create another avenue for dealing with blighted and vacant properties.

According to localhousingsolutions.org, land banks are defined as public authorities or nonprofit organizations created to acquire, hold, manage and redevelop property so that it may have a productive use to meet community goals, such as increasing affordable housing or stabilizing property values.

After several months of discussion and planning, the board of legislators formally adopted a resolution that will allow the county to seek approval from Empire State Development on the land bank.

Efforts to establish a land bank started roughly two years ago, Evans said, and talks with the county legislature have progressed steadily since. Evans and county lawmakers said that the land bank would provide another tool for the county to deal with blighted and vacant properties.

“By virtue of state law and local legislation, the county of Franklin guarantees the tax collection of all town, village, and school taxes within the county of Franklin and acts as the sole foreclosing governmental unit for all local governments within the county, thereby making the county an ideal candidate for approval of a single, county-wide land bank corporation,” the resolution reads.

The county previously held discussions more regional in scope, sponsored by Keeseville-based ADKAction. After Clinton and Essex counties established their own land banks it became clear that a regional solution was not feasible, officials said.

The Franklin County Land Bank Corp. will seat 11 members on its board of directors, lawmakers resolved Thursday, and those individuals will serve a term of three years. The legislature increased the board size from nine in order to allow for a mix of local officials, business owners and other stakeholders in community revitalization. Bylaws are currently being drafted, officials said.

Evans said that the 11-member board is diverse in background and expertise, and includes architects, attorneys, lawmakers, bankers and code enforcement officers from across the county.

“To have a diverse and expert group of board members is really helpful,” Evans said.

Evans said his office is working to finalize the application, and that Empire State Development has said approval could come as quickly as 60 days from the filing of that application.

County manager Donna J. Kissane said the county has for years provided funding for the Industrial Development Agency and the Local Development Corp. to work on priority projects, such as community blight, broadband access and environmental initiatives.

Kissane said the county attorney is in the process of completing paperwork to form a nonprofit corporation for the lank bank and will provide $500,000 in seed money, which will be used to purchase starting properties and to cover other administrative costs. She said the county also researched the bylaws of other New York land banks in formulating the plan.

“The land bank project fell under that arrangement that we have with (the FCEDC),” Kissane said. The county is the lead agency in the land bank effort.

“The land bank is something we’ve been talking about for a long time. The county is now in a position to be able to apply for the land bank and actually utilize some funds to get it started,” Kissane added. “The whole idea of a land bank is to really look at abandoned, blighted buildings and address those issues, and to have a multi-year plan to really look at the economic development opportunities in taking ownership of these properties.”

Evans said communities across New York have used land banks to effectively deal with problematic properties.

“Franklin County, just like every community upstate, has vacant property. Some of it can be really difficult to deal with for a variety of reasons,” Evans said.

He said the land bank matters to local residents, as vacant or blighted properties can be a source of frustration for those who work to maintain and improve their own properties. He said the reasons for blight and vacancy are varied, and include absentee owners, properties that are too blighted for owners to afford rehabilitation, or back taxes.

“When you’ve got one or two (blighted properties) on your road and it looks like no one is paying attention, it’s frustrating,” Evans said. Nonprofit land banks have powers that allow them to receive ownership of properties from the county, purchase properties, or receive properties by donation, with the goal of rehabilitating the properties, selling them, or otherwise disposing of them in a way that guarantees rehabilitation.

“It’s supposed to stop the cycle of vacant properties,” Evans said. He said the biggest power of the land bank is receiving ownership of properties that have been foreclosed by the county for back taxes.

“The land bank can receive that property before it goes to auction,” Evans said. He added that the land bank’s powers give it more discretion in disposing of those properties, which can therefore arrest the cycle of foreclosure and auction.

Kissane explained that the land bank has the option to identify up to 10 properties that they would like to move into the land bank, with a level of flexibility in the number.

“Ten is the guideline,” Kissane said. She said the land bank would need to revisit the legislature on any number of properties over 10.

Franklin County officials have set an internal deadline of the end of the month for completing the application, as the state allows 35 land banks statewide at any given time, and 26 land banks currently exist across the state.

“We really thought long and hard about our approach and what’s good for people and what’s good for the community,” Kissane said.


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