Editorial: Officials help save Land Bank’s ability to function
An attempt to give West Virginia communities more tools to deal with dilapidated properties almost backfired this week. Fortunately, those more in the know noticed the potential misstep and helped remedy the situation.
One program placed at risk was Huntington’s Land Bank, launched in 2009 as a way to try to deal with the hundreds of dilapidated structures in the city that essentially had been abandoned and were left vacant, serving as a drawing card for crime and blighting sections of the city.
City officials had identified the annual Cabell County tax auction as a major contributor to substandard housing in the city. Properties in the auction often get tangled in years of bureaucratic red tape, only to fall back into the hands of people who already have abandoned them or a land speculator who is looking for a quick profit from interest earned on the tax liens rather than trying to improve the property.
So the Huntington Urban Renewal Authority set out to pre-empt this process by purchasing as many tax liens within the city as possible. If the original property owner chooses not to pay the past due taxes and redeem the property after 18 months, HURA takes ownership and solicits redevelopment proposals from potential buyers. Any interest money that the program collects from properties that are redeemed is used in part to board up and demolish properties that are beyond repair.
Senate Bill 579, otherwise known as the West Virginia Land Trust Acquisition Act, was introduced in this year’s legislative session to establish a framework so that more local governments could undertake such an approach. The measure was passed by the Senate and this week was considered by the House of Delegates’ Judiciary Committee. But during a committee meeting on Monday, an amendment to the measure was approved that would have tied Huntington’s hands in acquiring properties through the tax auction. The amendment said such land trust or land bank programs could only bid as high as the taxes and penalty interest and charges owed on a delinquent property and no higher. That would have left HURA with no ability to compete against other bidders interested in the same property.
Fortunately, Mayor Steve Williams learned about the amendment and went to Charleston on Tuesday to express his concerns. Cabell County’s delegation jumped on board, and on Wednesday the legislation was amended again to eliminate the provision limiting the land bank’s ability to compete on tax liens.
That’s good for Huntington’s program as well as others that may be established elsewhere in the state under this law. Between 2011 and late 2013, Huntington’s Land Bank acquired 200 parcels of land. Of those, 74 have been resold for a combined $453,901 to buyers for redevelopment or other useful purposes.
That by no means has removed all the blighted properties in the city, but the program has made a significant dent in the problem. That would not have been possible — and couldn’t continue — if such a bidding limit had been placed on it.
We commend those who had a hand in seeing that the onerous amendment was short-lived.
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