Matthew Wagner of Tetra Tech is pictured giving a presentation to the Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation board. Also pictured are Charles Guarino and Mark Current. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Matthew Wagner of Tetra Tech is pictured giving a presentation to the Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation board. Also pictured are Charles Guarino and Mark Current. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
The Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation heard a proposal for acquiring and cleaning up the former Rocky Fork Truck Stop location through a state grant program at their Thursday, July 23 meeting.

Highland County Community Action Organization Housing Director Mark Current said the property, located at 12410 U.S. 50, has $10,578.51 in back taxes owed. The total value of the property, including improvements value, is $133,000, with land value of $25,500.

Matthew Wagner, who addressed the land bank board on acquiring the property, is an environmental consultant for Tetra Tech, “a leading provider of consulting, engineering, program management, construction management and technical services” (according to tetratech.com). He has worked on similar projects with county land banks in other southern Ohio counties, including Athens, Jackson, Pike and Scioto, along with other counties such as Henry, Paulding and Williams, he said. Wagner added that he has also worked in Hillsboro before with the cleanup of a gas station.

Wagner spoke to the land bank board regarding the Abandoned Gas Station Cleanup Grant. According to the Ohio Development Services Agency, “The Abandoned Gas Station Cleanup Grant will provide funding to assess and clean up BUSTR Class C sites (underground storage tanks with documented petroleum releases). Local government entities who own the eligible property or who have an agreement with the landowner may apply. The applicant and property owner cannot have contributed to the prior release of petroleum or other hazardous substance on the site.”

Wagner said that he stumbled upon the former truck stop while traveling to Chillicothe from Cincinnati and spoke about its favorable location.

“It’s that classic abandoned gas station, and it’s at a busy corner,” Wagner said. “You’re at two state routes.

“It has good geographic value, which is why I think it make a lot of sense for the land bank to take it, because I can see there being resale value once it’s cleaned up. You guys might get a good price for it, once you receive the no further action letter from the state.”

Board member Charles Guarino told Wagner the truck stop was “a hopping place for years.” Board member Terry Britton said it was “the true truck stop” in the area for years.

Guarino and board member Jeff Duncan also pointed out that South Central Power’s new headquarters is being built across the street from the former truck stop site.

“It would probably be a very desirable spot,” Guarino said.

Wagner said acquiring the truck stop property gives the land bank “an opportunity for a chance to revitalize a part of the county that I’m sure would like it to be done,” along with “an opportunity to expand your portfolio” with an environmental project.

“I can help you, and I want to help,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Wagner said that he is a brownfield redevelopment expert who assists in the cleanup of sites such as “gas stations, dry cleaners and old factories.”

“I’ve helped folks get roughly about $4 million through this Abandoned Gas Station grant program that Ohio Development Services Agency has,” Wagner said.

Wagner said that the “advantage” of working with him is he is “also an EPA contractor.”

“For instance, if the land bank had one of these houses that you’re working on and you see a bunch of hazardous waste,” Wagner said. “You don’t want this place to blow up. You would call the Ohio EPA hotline, and Ohio EPA would then call me, and I would go out and take care of it.

“From the standpoint of this gas station that you have, I can in essence take you through the entire process, 100-percent grant. There would be no cost to the land bank associated with the work that needs to be done.”

He acknowledged that there are costs associated, such as “to transfer properties and to get it through the foreclosure process,” but those are “minor” in the effort “to get an old abandoned gas station cleaned up.”

Wagner said his role is to help with the “up-front work” required once the land bank acquires the property, assuming they are able to do so.

“Once the land bank, or once the county, forecloses on the property, you don’t have to have a foreclosure sale,” Wagner said. “You just simply have to file for foreclosure. Once you do that, we can then apply to Ohio EPA’s targeted brownfield assessment program, and we can get the required phase one environmental study done.”

In addition, Wagner said he would oversee getting a geophysical survey, asbestos inspection and limited site check completed, along with collecting “soil samples to make it eligible for the Ohio Development Services Agency’s grant.”

Wagner said it’s “a really good program, designed to help communities like Highland County.”

“There’s roughly, I think, still about $10 million or $8 million left in the program,” Wagner said. “It’s hard to get, and the reason why I say that is because this site is technically in enforcement.

“The one beauty of you being the land bank is you have these special protections. You also have these special powers under this gas station grant program because how it works is that by you just simply being a land bank, the site, when it gets transferred to the land bank, goes from enforcement to what’s called a class C designation, which means you’re not responsible. Nobody else can do that but you.”

Wagner added that it “really has to be the land bank that does this project because everyone else is really falling in line with the current owner.” He said that otherwise, anyone who purchases a gas station will be liable for repairing all of its issues, whereas the land bank, through this program, can “take this liability-free, so you don’t have the burden, and you also get all the grant money to then take care of” the property.

Whether the land bank can acquire the property depends on the current property owner’s response to their 30-day notice ordering the payment of back taxes, Wagner said.

“They’re kind of getting to that critical stage of the amount of back taxes versus what they’re willing to do moving forward,” he said. “My experience is if a property’s been over two years, vacant or abandoned, land banks have the ability to utilize the expedited foreclosure process.”

Wagner also explained that the land bank would not be responsible for paying him for his services, as he gets paid through the Ohio EPA for their work. He would then “apply to become your consultant” under the land bank’s request for proposals and would be paid through the grant, he said.

“It’s really a no-lose situation,” Wagner said. “It’s the best kind of opportunity, and really, I think it makes me a partner in the project to make sure it gets done.”

For an idea of a timeline, Wagner said a similar project “took about two years from a conversation like I’m having with you until we got the No Further Action letter.”

“For many of you that have worked in government and know, that’s really not that bad of a timeline, in terms of how that works,” he said.

After Wagner’s presentation, Current expressed concerns about the land bank acquiring the property and then not qualifying for the grant funding.

“The short answer is I picked it, so I already know that it’s going to qualify,” Wagner said. “I kind of came here knowing full well that this is a good project, based on my previous experience and the jobs that I’ve done.

“Every project that I’ve worked on under this scenario has always gotten the targeted brownfield assessment money, and then it’s always gotten the Ohio Development Services Agency money.”

Wagner called Rocky Fork Truck Stop property “the poster child for the program” and an “ideal site.”

“My biggest concern is that you put out your letter to this owner saying ‘hey, you’ve got 30 days or we’re filing for foreclosure’ and they pay their bill,” Wagner said.

“That’s the only catch?” Duncan asked.

“I think it is,” Wagner said. “To me, it is.”

Board member Karen Bridges said she could send the notice to the property owner.

Duncan asked if Wagner would help the county “through the whole process.”

“Absolutely,” Wagner said. “I will come to any meeting. I’ll be here all the stretch of the way.”

Wagner also offered to help connect land bank treasurer Beth Allering to treasurers from other county land banks to discuss questions.

“I hate to say it, but for having an abandoned gas station, having a land bank is the only way you can really do this,” Wagner said.

Guarino, Duncan and Britton said that the former truck stop “never sold” because it would be a “liability” on its owner to clean up the property from an environmental perspective. Wagner assured them that even if there is a leak and a “mess” on the property, the county can “get up to $250,000 initially, and if that still doesn’t cover it, we can get up to $500,000 in clean up.”

“That would definitely cover it,” Wagner said. “I’ve never had a gas station go over $750,000, ever. Matter of fact, I haven’t had a gas station go over $250,000. I don’t see the truck stop there being any different than those, but you just never know.

“It is an expensive proposition, when you’re dealing with soil and ground water contamination.”

Allering asked if the state’s grants were reimbursement grants and if the county would have to “upfront the money.”

“In terms of how I work with you, with the upfront grants, you don’t see anything because I’m invoicing Ohio EPA,” Wagner said. “Now, say you win the grant and you have $250,000 for the gas station. Well, I’m also getting all the bids for demo contractors, getting them for the drilling contractors, getting them for folks to suck out all the petroleum that may still be in these tanks, the asbestos and everything else. I pay all those people.”

From there, Wagner said all the contractors’ invoices, along with his invoice, would go to the county land bank with a disbursement form for the county for the county to sign. That form is turned in to the state, “who then pays you,” and the county is responsible for paying Wagner with those funds.

“There’s really no fiscal pressure on Highland County,” Wagner said.

Current pointed out that the original purpose of the land bank was to clean up blighted properties in the Rocky Fork Lake area. “Now it’s countywide, but we’re still looking in that area,” he said.

Bridges asked if she should include an option to transfer the property to the land bank in the foreclosure letter. Current said they would also need to do a title search on the property.

“In my experience, with properties like these abandoned gas station, you may have other things that come up,” Wagner said. “I’ve worked with other counties to help with a federal tax lien or Medicare lien or some crazy lien you don’t even think about. When they hear what the goals and objectives are on the project, they let those go.

“You’re right, we have to have those discussions, but it seems to work out pretty well.”

The board voted unanimously for Bridges to send the letter and for a title search to be executed on the property. They also thanked Wagner for his presentation.

“If the owner chooses not to pay their taxes, then I look forward to working with you,” Wagner said.

In other discussion:

• Current asked the land bank board for feedback on whether they were interested in pursuing the property at 7931 Main Street, Highland. He said the owner is interested in donating the property to the land bank.

“The only problem with it is there is a lien with Liberty Savings Bank,” Current said. “They hold a mortgage on the property, and it’s also tied in with a property in Fayette County. We’re working to try to see if the bank will release the lien on that property, and if so, then we can acquire that one.”

Current said that the owner advised him the building “doesn’t have any asbestos in it, but it does have lead-based paint.”

The Village of Highland has reached out to Current “about trying to do something with it,” but he said “I also know it will be an expensive demo.”

“My question is, let’s say Liberty Savings Bank does release it,” Current said. “He’s willing to give us the property and so on. Do we want it?”

Guarino said it would be “a big loss” to the land bank. “We’d never get anything out of it,” he said.

On the other hand, Britton said “it would definitely improve the area” if they could demolish the building. He asked if Current had any idea of the costs involved.

In the event the building actually does have asbestos, Current said similar abatement projects have cost as much as $6,000 “with the Moving Ohio Forward program, and I’d venture to say we’d be looking at 25 [thousand] in demo.”

“I’d rather see us try to maybe get some grants that can help with that,” Guarino said, adding the project would be “a money pit.”

“Other than basically cleaning up the community, it’s not going to be a big benefit,” Duncan said. “I don’t know how desirable that corner lot would be for anyone.”

Current said he could contact the village and “see if they have any funds” that could be contributed to the project. He added there are $11,375.58 in back taxes due on the property.

Britton said that the village could also try to apply for a grant, or “more than one,” as Guarino noted.

Wagner told the board that it’s possible the county could also qualify for a JobsOhio grant for the Highland property, and “if it has some sort of environmental issue, it also takes care of the demo.”

“The key, though, is what you want it to be, like what can it be once you knock it down?” he said. “You have to kind of think about the planning side of it. If you can come up with a plan, who’d really want to be on that corner, and if it is of some economic development potential, then we could get the grant money you were talking about.”

Wagner said it “may not be a 100-percent grant, but it would definitely be a 50-50 grant,” at least. Guarino suggested that Current speak with the mayor of Highland for feedback.

• Current reported on the corporation’s properties in the “old business” portion of the meeting. Properties discussed include:

— 6830 Heather Moor Trail, Hillsboro. At the previous meeting, the board voted to pay $800, and to have each adjoining property owner pay $800, to cover an estimate for splitting the parcel. Half of the parcel will be added to each neighbor’s existing parcel.

Current said that a letter of commitment was sent to those adjoining owners “informing them of all surveying and closing costs.”

“I called the surveyor immediately, and we’re on their schedule to survey that property,” he said.

Once the paperwork has been completed and clears the county maps and recorder’s offices, a closing will be scheduled, according to Current.

“The surveyor did question it,” Current said. “He said, you’re causing a lot more costs to this than you have to. We can simply survey that parcel, split it and one would have the number the parcel currently has, with the .00 at the end. The other would have a .01 at the end. I said, well, the auditor requested this and said it would be a lot cleaner for this number to go away, and to join the half with the parcels they currently own.”

— 10863 Cinderella Drive, 11465 Dundee Drive and 11471 Dundee Drive, all Hillsboro addresses. These properties did not sell, and Current said five bid packets have been handed out “without a bid opening date.” Once a bid opening date has been scheduled, Current said he would notify those with bid packets and advertise the date.

Along with those two Dundee Drive properties, they discussed 11457 Dundee Dr., which has sold.

“One of the Dundee parcels sold, and he told me to check with the winning bidder, and I did,” Current said. “I told him there was still a minimum there that we wanted on those parcels. He offered, originally, $1,300 per parcel, and both those are well above that. Then he came back just this week and said he would offer $2,600 for the parcel (33-16-902-101.00) right next to the one he has (33-16-902-100.00).”

Britton said there was a “disaster” across the street from the three Dundee Drive properties. He asked what the “intentions are” of the winning bidder for the 11457 Dundee Dr. property.

“He wants to build, I believe, a pole barn,” Current said.

“Those lots are going to be hard to sell, just because of the neighbor across the street,” Britton said. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been out there, but it is awful.”

Guarino said “the land value was appraised at $8,000, and then improvement value, if there’s any improvement, the total value is $9,000.” The total assessed value is $3,150, he said. Current noted that “there’s no improvement on it.”

Britton moved to accept the $2,600 bid on the 11465 Dundee Dr. property, which passed, 4-0. Current said that leaves the corporation with just the one Dundee Drive property left to sell.

— 10711 Venetian Way, Hillsboro, which has been purchased. Greg VanZant is working on the deeds, transfer and closing for that project. Current told the board the purchaser asked if she was required to bring a cashier’s check or a regular check to the closing.

“This is the first transaction we’re doing, so I don’t know what your thoughts are,” Current said.

Britton said that “normally, a cashier’s check” is required. Guarino and Allering agreed.

• Current also gave an update on other properties not yet in the land bank’s possession, as they are in the process of foreclosure. Those properties include 11540 Dundee Dr., Hillsboro; 6638 Wizard of Oz Way, Hillsboro; 10561 Lois Lane, Hillsboro; 12206 North Shore Road, Hillsboro; 235 South Seventh St., Greenfield; 6774 Heather Moor Trail, Hillsboro; 7690 Pence Road, Hillsboro; 11410 Cathy’s Court, Hillsboro; 6855 Dutch Street, Hillsboro; 9955 U.S. 62, Hillsboro; and 6652 Golden Doubloon Lane, Hillsboro.

• Allering reported an account balance of $152,702.74 as of June 30 in her fiscal report. She asked for approval to write a check to Banks Construction for an invoice in the amount of $1,350 and for authorization to access the corporation’s bank account online for “viewing purposes only” in order to access bank statements. The board voted to approve both requests by a 4-0 vote.

The land bank’s next meeting will be held Aug. 20 at 9 a.m. at the Highland County Administration Building.