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The Suburbanite
  • Land bank could help residents gain abandoned lots

  • Stark County commissioners have approved the first step to establishing a county land bank that could help property owners who live near abandoned lots more quickly take ownership of those lots. Some residents in the Young Street SE neighborhood in Massillon hope to be among the first to take advantage of the new option.

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  • Robert and Dodie Muntean hope to someday own the land they’ve mowed and maintained for the last 14 years.
    The Massillon couple say the grassy lot next door on Highland Avenue SE that’s slightly longer than a basketball court is too small for anyone else to use. They want to combine it with their existing property and build a garage.
    “It isn’t worth anything to anyone except us,” Robert Muntean said.
    The Munteans first tried to get the lot more than a decade ago. They sent two letters to the former property owners, Oliver and Virginia Sturges, whom the county treasurer says stopped paying taxes in the 1960s. Newspaper archives show that Oliver (identified under the last name Sturgis) died in August 1971 and Virginia (identified under the last name Sturgiss) died in October 1972.
    The Munteans also sought help from Massillon and Stark County officials, only to be told that they would have to pay the thousands of dollars in back taxes and assessments owed on the property, plus the fees associated with the lengthy process.
    “It was more than what we spent on our own house,” Dodie Muntean said. “... We don’t have that kind of money to throw out for a little piece of land that we were already maintaining. We just kind of gave up.”
    It’s a frustration the Munteans share with other property owners in the Young Street SE neighborhood, a community up the hill from Republic Engineered Products where tax delinquent lots make up one-third of the real estate. Members of the neighborhood association say they’ve made big improvements to clean up their area and don’t want these abandoned lots to attract vandals, trash and varmints.
    Several property owners have staked out the abandoned lots they want to obtain — most of which have delinquent taxes and assessments that exceed the property’s value. The Word of Liberty Christian Center, whose parishioners clog Young Street NE when the church has a special event, would use the land next door for a parking lot. Frank Slocum, who first moved into the neighborhood as a renter before buying and remodeling the house across the street in October, wants the three vacant lots that flank his Young Street property to erect a garage and build a swimming pool.
    Stark County officials say the Massillon neighborhood is a poster child for why the county needs a land bank, which can acquire abandoned and foreclosed properties and transfer them clear of tax liens to neighboring property owners or interested buyers.
    “It’s very clear that the chance of really collecting the delinquent taxes in a neighborhood like this is very nominal,” said Auditor Alan Harold, who recently met with the Young Street SE Neighborhood Association to introduce the land bank concept. “The land bank gives us a tool to work a lot more quickly with these folks.”
    Page 2 of 3 - Current methods of obtaining delinquent and vacant properties can take 18 months to complete; a land bank can transfer a property in less than three months.
    FIRST STEPS
    Last week, commissioners took the first steps to establishing the county’s land bank, formally known as the Stark County Land Reutilization Corp., by authorizing Stark County Treasurer Alexander Zumbar to file its articles of incorporation with the state. Stark County is the ninth county to take advantage of a 2009 state law change making a land bank an option for counties with a population of at least 60,000.
    Those in the audience at the meeting, including Dodie Muntean and Carole Clark who founded and leads the Young Street SE Neighborhood Association, clapped and cheered after the vote. Joel Owens, director of the Community Building Partnership, also was visibly delighted.
    Owens, whose nonprofit agency received a grant from the Stark Community Foundation to hire land bank consultants, has been working with Zumbar since last spring to get the county land bank established.
    He believes the land bank will provide a more flexible planning tool for officials to fight blighted neighborhoods.
    The land bank could take over tax-foreclosed properties whose owners cannot be found, low-value parcels that lenders, such as Fannie Mae, or federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), no longer want and land that private owners or probate estates don’t want to maintain anymore. Once any liens are wiped from the property, land bank officials could work with community leaders to decide how best to put the property back into tax-generating use, whether by transferring it to a neighbor, demolishing an existing building, bundling it with other properties for a developer or turning it over to a nonprofit like Habitat for Humanity.
    BOARD NEEDED
    Stark County’s land bank will be governed by a board of directors that’s a separate, community improvement corporation with county, municipal and township leaders as members. It will not be a county agency, but will be authorized to operate on behalf of the county. The initial five-member board of directors includes Treasurer Zumbar, Commissioners Janet Weir Creighton and Thomas Bernabei and representatives yet to be appointed by Canton and the Stark County Township Association. The five could later choose to expand the board’s membership to seven or nine people.
    Commissioners still must authorize the land bank to act on the county’s behalf and approve a land reutilization plan created by the new board of directors. They also must decide how to fund the land bank.
    Zumbar believes commissioners should divert 5 percent of money collected from delinquent tax payments for the land bank’s primary operating income, an option he estimates would generate between $250,000 to $500,000 a year. That money would be on top of the 5 percent the prosecutor and treasurer already keep to offset their expenses for collecting back taxes. If Zumbar’s suggestion is approved, the 10 percent would come off the top of any payments made on late taxes before the payments are forwarded to schools and other governmental subdivisions.
    Page 3 of 3 - School officials, who initially questioned the concept, have said they do not oppose the land bank, and have asked for a seat on the board of directors.
    Zumbar believes the land bank could acquire its first property in June. Residents in the Young Street SE neighborhood hope the abandoned properties in their community will be among the first on the land bank’s list.