EATON — In the past decade, Preble County has seen a significant increase in blight areas, due in part, to the high level of foreclosures the county experienced. According to Policy Matters Ohio, Preble County ranked in the top 10 of Ohio counties for home foreclosures every year between 2007 and 2013. Coupled with the high foreclosure rates are the significant number of abandoned commercial and residential buildings in Preble County.
This created blight areas which, if not addressed, could lower property values and lead to more crime. In Eaton, alone, the number of trespassing incidents handled by the Eaton Police Department has risen drastically in the past decade – from 28 trespassing cases in 2006 to 109 incidents in 2016.
The Moving Ohio Forward program, which earmarked about $300,000 locally to raze buildings that met the program’s qualifications, gave the County Commissioners a way to deal with some of the abandoned and neglected buildings. However, when those funds dried up a few years ago the county was left without an effective method to access state and federal dollars earmarked to solve blight.
That changed in 2015 when Ohio legislators revamped a law governing county land reutilization corporations – or land banks as they are more commonly known. The revised law allows smaller counties like Preble to create this legal structure which, in turn, can be used to attract state and/or federal dollars.
What is a Land Bank?
Land banks are a legal mechanism that joins private and public entities in a venture to address problem areas in a community. These problem areas can be abandoned buildings, land acquired via tax liens or even land donated to the land bank. Simply put, a land bank is a board consisting of two County Commissioners, the County Treasurer and two members of the private sector.
Why Preble County Needs One?
There are several reasons why the county would benefit from a land bank. First, it would open the door to potential funding – funding it could not otherwise receive. In 2017, this funding could potentially come from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency. Ohio law also allows a county to earmark up to five percent of its Delinquent Tax and Assessment Collection funds. Between 2014 and 2016, the county collected $222,781 in these funds. Under Ohio law, that would equate to about $3,500 local funds the county could annually earmark to its land bank.
According to Robin Dardin Thomas of Western Reserve Land Conservancy, whose agency has been instrumental in assisting counties set up land banks, there really is no downside to creating one. She said it costs $99 to incorporate the entity and then the board can do as much or as little work as they choose. According to Thomas, there is no legal mandate requiring a specific number of properties be processed.
It can also prevent redundancy of services as New Paris council member Kathy Smallwood pointed out when speaking to the Preble County Commissioners during a June meeting. By creating a land bank, smaller villages would be able to rely on a centralized system – and the expertise of the land bank representative – to assist in acquiring or dealing with troublesome properties. As the system currently stands, each local village must learn and, due to personnel turnover, often relearn the various legal procedures required when dealing with neglected properties. With a land bank, a single person could be designated to stay on top of the regulations and they would handle the property the local land bank acquired. In smaller counties, this is often done without hiring additional personnel by using a county employee.
Currently, 43 of Ohio’s 88 counties have a land bank.
The Preble County Commissioners began researching the program in February and are expected to reach a decision within the next couple of months.