Land bank taking down properties and hoping for more funding

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK ABOVE: Bellaire Police Chief Dick Flanagan visits a dilapidated house on Trumbull Street, noting it is a likely candidate for demolition. He points out excessive water damage and trash.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Belmont County’s land bank is helping several communities improve their neighborhoods.

For the past several years, the Belmont County Land Reutilization Corp., commonly called the land bank, has helped communities demolish large numbers of dilapidated structures. Last year demolition projects were stalled due to a lack of available contractors. That resulted in a reduction in funding from the Neighborhood Initiative Program going into 2019, but this summer the land bank is poised to take down a dozen properties at once in the riverside communities of Martins Ferry, Bellaire and Powhatan Point.

“We want to show the impact that we can make,” Belmont County Treasurer and land bank Chairwoman Kathy Kelich said.

She said that while the program has been a boon to Belmont County and could continue to help the area if the state budget to be approved in July continues its funding.

Bellaire Police Chief Dick Flanagan said the problem of dilapidated structures is prevalent in his community. He walked through a dilapidated building in the 3000 block of Trumbull Street that he said is a likely site for demolition and pointed out excessive water damage and piles of trash in the building.

“The cost of making repairs would be more than the house is worth,” Flanagan said while pointing a flashlight at a hole in a first-floor ceiling and indicating where the second floor is visible. He added that such structures pose a fire hazard and serve as shelter for birds and rats. The Trumbull Street house is also at risk of falling onto a neighboring property, he said.

Flanagan said he often works with neighbors of dilapidated properties who may have an interest in purchasing the sites once the land has been cleared. He said such lots can be used for a house or yard extension, increasing the buyer’s property value rather than having them suffer a decrease as a result of being next to the unused property.

He said the land bank has helped with the demolition of 16-20 properties just in his community in the past two years.

“They’ve been exceptional. I can’t give those people enough praise,” Flanagan said. “I try to find the owner. Eventually I run into a brick wall, then I call the land bank to see if they’d be interested in taking the property.”

T.J. Hill, who oversees land bank operations from his post in the treasurer’s office, said the program has been active since 2014 but has become more active in the last two years. He noted the acquisition of 14 properties during the county’s last tax foreclosure sale.

“It’s been slow to get there, but we’re on a roll right now,” he said, describing the summer projects as an unprecedented achievement. “It’s been a couple properties here, a couple properties there, working with what we’ve had, and now we’re at a place where we’ve obtained all these properties.”

He added that all of the demolition work should be complete by the end of summer.

In Bellaire, the land bank has acquired six properties, four on Franklin Street, one on Harrison Street and one on West 23rd Street. In Powhatan Point, four properties have been acquired, two on Second Street, one on Oak Street and one on Industry Street. Two were purchased in Martins Ferry, on South 10th Street and Euclid Avenue. A property on Oak Street in Bridgeport was also bought.

During the June meeting of the land bank board, members approved five of the properties to be sent out for bid for asbestos abatement prior to demolition at a cost of more than $7,000. Hill said asbestos abatement should be completed quickly in the other properties.

“It should be a quick turnaround because it’s not that much. Some of them are a very minimum amount of asbestos in those,” he said, adding that demolition should hopefully begin soon after. “We would hope by the close of summer, by the end of August, that they would be bid out and accepted bids, and they would begin demolishing these houses.”

“Once they’re down, we’ll be able to get reimbursed,” Hill said. “We’ll know once all that dust settles where we are financially. … One house, we could look at it and go, ‘It’s going to cost nothing to tear that down,’ and be surprise that it’s cost double what we thought, so we never know really how much money we’re going to be looking at.”

Hill added that the land bank has $232,520.17 left to spend this year, with about $25,000 usually allotted to each house for asbestos abatements, surveys, tear-downs and liens.

“The more we spend the more we get with regards to getting reimbursements,” he said.

However, the future of funding for the NIP and land bank programs is unknown, and officials are awaiting the announcement of the state budget in July.

“That’s a mystery right now. We do not know really what to expect. We’ve heard both things, that it’s going to be winding down and that there might be an influx of funds somewhere that will keep it afloat. We don’t know. We don’t want to overextend ourselves,” Hill said.

He added that Flanagan alone could readily recommend another dozen likely properties in Bellaire, but with funding in doubt the land bank is being cautious.

“If we obtain 14 more properties by tomorrow, we don’t know if we’re going to have funding to rehabilitate those properties or to raze them, so we are being very conservative.”

Land Bank Director Tim Hall added that this year, the land bank has taken down four structures on Highland, Monroe, Clinton and Delaware streets in Bellaire. He said most were leftover projects from 2018 and demolished close to February.

The land bank is also paying the bill for asbestos abatement for the former school building in Belmont that dates to 1915. The land bank is using delinquent real estate tax assessment funds totaling $89,000 for this project.

The next land bank board meeting is set for 9 a.m. July 9 at the courthouse in St. Clairsville.

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