County land bank plan draws critics

LISBON – The decision by county commissioners to create a land bank is another example of government getting into something in which it has no business being involved.

So claims Loretta Price of Salem, who attended Wednesday’s Columbiana County commissioners meeting to express her opposition to the land bank they voted to create last week.

The land bank is a quasi-government agency allowed under Ohio law that enables counties to quickly acquire dilapidated and abandoned homes and buildings that have been foreclosed against. The idea is to demolish the blighted properties and then resell the parcels for new home construction or to assist an economic development project.

Price said it is not a function of the government to get into the private property acquisition business and use tax dollars on something that will ultimately benefit private sector wealthy buyers who may eventually purchase these properties.

“Don’t saddle taxpayers with these properties … This is not the way government works,” she told them.

Price suggested the American way is to let private investors create a business that would do the same thing instead of the government getting involved. “The government isn’t supposed to own land,” she said.

Commissioner Mike Halleck defended their decision, saying they intend to use the land bank program to primarily acquire and demolish rundown properties that have become a problem for neighborhoods. Creation of the land makes the county eligible for federal demolition money to help accomplish that goal.

“This isn’t something where we’re going to go out and grab land” just for the sake of acquiring foreclosed properties, he said. “We’re trying to put bad properties back in play.”

“That’s not your job, to upkeep property,” Price responded, adding she was also displeased the land bank would be run by a separate board of unelected officials. “It’s like a shadow government behind you making the decisions.”

The land bank’s Land Reutilization Corp. board will range in size from five to nine members, including four permanent members – two commissioners, the county treasurer and the mayor from the county’s largest city, which is Salem.

Commissioner Jim Hoppel said the focus will be on properties that have been abandoned for a considerable amount of time and not those that have a chance of being resold at a foreclosure sale.

County Treasurer Linda Bolon was contacted later and she also defended the land bank program, saying long-abandoned properties with property tax liens are to be targeted on a case-by-case basis.

“I fully believe the government has a responsibility to return these properties to the tax rolls, and this is a way to allow us to do that,” she said. “We’re not taking anyone’s property from them. These properties have already been abandoned and there is no recourse.”

Wayne Herrod of Lisbon, who also attended the meeting, indicated he was concerned the land bank could be used to force property owners to sell their property against their will, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court case of about 10 years ago that expanded the government’s authority to use eminent domain to acquire property not only for public use but for private developments that benefit the public in the form of new tax revenue.

“This is going on all across the country,” he said.

Halleck defended his conservative credentials, saying while he believes in limited government there are some things government should do when allowed under the law and eliminating neighborhood blight is one of them.

Price, who is a member of the Ohio Valley Tea Party but was not representing them, said she intends to continue opposing creation of the land bank. Herrod said he is a member of the Campaign for Liberty group, with members in Columbiana, Mahoning and Jefferson counties. Herrod said his group’s creation predated the Tea Party movement to support libertarian Ron Paul.

Halleck said everyone he has talked to supports the land bank program. “You’re the first person to be against it,” he told Price.