Government and Real Estate

Land bank may have to change direction

Following county decision, its future lies with cities and townships.

April 5, 2013
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At a six-hour retreat held last month, Kent County Land Bank Authority board members listed 10 priorities that would form the underlying factors of the organization’s three-year strategic plan, which they’re in the process of putting together.

At a more recent meeting, the five board members and 13 individuals that comprise the land bank’s advisory council chose their top three priorities.

Coming in first was creating a proactive public relations plan that emphasizes the positive impact the land bank has had and hopes to continue to have. Board members felt the success the land bank has had in its first year of operation isn’t widely known. They also felt the agency is a difficult organization to explain clearly.

Second was engaging the Kent County Commission as a core stakeholder and continually reminding the board of the good things the land bank was accomplishing. This priority finished high because board members felt support for the land bank was waning among commissioners.

Third was creating a pilot redevelopment program with the city of Grand Rapids, although this priority is being reviewed and could be tweaked before the plan is finalized.

The second priority also may be reviewed and tweaked. Engaging the county commission as a core stakeholder may not be a top priority any longer, as the commissioners’ support of the land bank clearly has waned.

A day after the land bank board and advisory council ranked their top priorities, county commissioners overwhelmingly voted not to let the land bank buy tax-foreclosed properties prior to the annual auction, a move it allowed in July, resulting in properties being redeveloped.

That vote means the fate of the land bank is now in the hands of the county’s cities and townships; part of the commission’s decision was for the land bank to work closely with the 30 municipalities and convince those boards to claim properties from the foreclosure list and transfer the parcels to it.

But the Kent County Treasurer’s office has already paid the municipalities the back taxes owed on their foreclosed properties, and those units have been made whole. So for a municipality to pluck properties off the list and then transfer the sites to the land bank, it will have to reimburse the treasurer’s office and buy back the selected properties for the delinquent tax amounts.

It might not be an easy decision for elected officials to return cash they have in hand, at a time when tax revenue has dwindled, for the promise of properties being redeveloped and put back on the tax rolls. For municipalities, the beauty of having the land bank buy properties from the county was those units got both: the back taxes and redeveloped properties.

So KCLBA may or may not change the second priority from engaging county leadership to focusing on city and township leaders now that commissioners have pretty much removed the county from the land bank’s future.

“I’m proud of the properties the land bank has taken in,” said County Commissioner Stan Ponstein, also on the KLCBA board, after the county’s decisive vote.

Also at their last meeting, the board and advisory council agreed on a new mission statement for the land bank. It emphasizes entering into partnerships with local governments, community groups and the private sector to redevelop properties in order to eliminate blight, raise property values, preserve neighborhoods and promote economic development.

“There is an increasing role for the land bank in outlying areas, like Byron Center,” said Alan Levy of Goaltrac, the consultant assisting the land bank with its strategic plan. “Some people have talked about the land bank getting involved in foreclosure prevention, but that would be a threat (to the land bank).”

The land bank board also agreed to extend its $100,000 line of credit with Huntington Bank for another year.

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