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Highland County land bank board selects more properties for demolition, cleanup

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Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation board president Terry Britton, left, and Land Bank Coordinator Jason Johansen are pictured at the September land bank board meeting. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Caitlin Forsha, The Highland County Press

The Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation is continuing to make headway in their fight against blight in the county, as the land bank board selected a tentative list of new properties to target using state cleanup funding during their Thursday, Sept. 21 meeting.

As discussed by Land Bank Coordinator Jason Johansen in August, among the announcements this summer was the passage of the 2024-25 state operating budget, which includes another $350 million for the Ohio Brownfield Remediation Program and $150 million for the Ohio Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program.

A total of 19 properties in Hillsboro (11), Mowrystown (five) and Lynchburg (three) were cleaned up through the first Building Demolition and Site Revitalization grant, with the demolition of various structures, including houses and an abandoned barn. For the Building Demolition and Site Demolition grant, Johansen said that there is “$77,895 left over in additional funding that we didn't spend for those projects” that the county will now be permitted to use.

Two projects — the former Rocky Fork Truck Stop in Rainsboro and the former East Monroe Mill — were also funded in Highland County through the Brownfield Remediation grants.

On Thursday, the board voted 5-0 to approve a preliminary list of potential properties for the Building Demolition and Site Revitalization grant, including leftover funds from the current program as well as to plan ahead for the upcoming next round. The list is “subject to additions/and or deletions,” Johansen said.

Two of the properties on the list are owned by the land bank — one in Samantha, on U.S. 62, and two adjoining parcels (counted as one property) on Heather Moor Trail that the HCLRC recently obtained via tax foreclosure. Overall, the list includes 10 properties in the city of Hillsboro, two in Paint Township and one each in Brushcreek, Clay, Fairfield, Marshall and Penn townships.

As was also noted by Johansen, the list includes three parcels with a combined total of four trailers (one parcel in Hillsboro with two trailers, one each in Fairfield and Brushcreek townships), which may not qualify under the grant rules.

“We have to wait for the guidelines to come out to see if that would be approved to be demoed,” Johansen said. “A lot of the times, [the trailers] have a hitch on the end, so they just want you to pull it out of there, but a lot of the owners have said no one will take on that task because they will just fall apart in the street as they're going down.”

In order to use the leftover $77,895 in funding as well as to plan ahead for the next grant cycle, Johansen said he wanted to “bid these out” now and get estimates for the 17 properties.

“We can get an amount that it's going to cost, because we have our leftover funding, and I think we can do about four or five projects,” Johansen. “The remaining would be toward the next round of funding that's going to come out this fall/winter.”

Legal counsel Todd Book agreed, saying that with the bids, “they don’t have to be committed” to anything, and that they would be “better off” to get an idea now of the costs.

“That would make us pretty ready to go once this money does get released,” HCLRC board president Terry Britton said.

Johansen said he doesn’t “want to send money back” from the unused grant funding and that he can submit the information to the Ohio Department of Development to determine “which projects are approved” so they can move forward.

One of the projects listed was the site of the former Buford school, which was already demolished using state funding awarded to the county in a project not involving the land bank. However, the site included an underground storage tank that still needs to be removed, and environmental consultant Matt Wagner of TetraTech said “that is an eligible expense under your Revitalization Grant that you have.

“If that's something that you still are looking to get done to close that particular project out,  you can do that,” Wagner said. “You could work with one of your vendors that you're already working with to get that done.”

Britton said he wanted to wait to see the bids before determining “what to prioritize.” However, Book said that he would also encourage them to think about prioritizing the Heather Moor Trail properties, since those are already owned by the land bank, as opposed to the majority of the other parcels.

“It is a mess,” Book said. “A lot of cleanup needs to happen there. I think that community would be very well served to get that cleaned up.”

Regarding the Heather Moor Trail parcels, Johansen said they “believe there’s still a squatter that hasn't left after we did a three-day notice,” as board member Randy Mustard had previously alerted them to the squatting issues.

“We did a 30-day notice, and I delivered that yesterday with a deputy,” Johansen said. “Hopefully, they're out in 30 days.”

Beyond that, Book said “the next step would be to file a forcible entry and detainer action in Hillsboro Municipal Court, asking that they set a date of eviction.

“I think we’d want to try to coordinate that with the bid for the cleanup, so we get the certification that the person has to be out, and we start the bulldozer right then,” Book said.

Mustard added that he already has prospective buyers lined up for both parcels.

Along with that list of 17 properties, Johansen has also compiled a list of 20 additional potential sites for BDSR grants — including in Berrysville, Greenfield, Hillsboro, Leesburg, Lynchburg, Mowrystown and the Rocky Fork Lake area — but is awaiting word from the property owners regarding access.

For an update on Brownfield projects, Wagner said that work is “still ongoing” at the Rocky Fork Truck Stop.

“There's groundwater impact, and we're working through the BUSTR [Ohio's Bureau of Underground Storage Tank Requirements] process evaluation,” Wagner said. “You do a tier one assessment and you do a tier one delineation, and so we're in the tier one delineation process with regards to the groundwater out at the site.

“It is impacted, and so ultimately we're going to likely have to do injections to treat the groundwater at the site to then get the no further action letter.”

Currently, Wagner said they are working to determine if the truck stop “has actually impacted the property to the east.

“We do have delineation to the south, and we also have delineation to the north,” Wagner said. “It’s a process. We're working as best we can with BUSTR, just to ensure we don't get too far ahead of ourselves with regards to it.”

Wagner added that in addition to soil and groundwater contamination, crews discovered additional areas that needed cleaned up.

"We did find, actually, a drinking water well, located inside the old Rocky Fork Truck Stop that we had to abandon properly,” he said. “We found two additional tanks out at the site as well, so it's been quite a project.”

For the actual grant administration, Johansen said that “the reporting is up to date” for the truck stop, while they were approved for $317,111.14 in reimbursements earlier this month to “pay for March through June invoices.” He has also submitted and received approval on the “final report” for the East Monroe Mill site and issued a check after receiving the $90,930.87 reimbursement this month, as that project is done.

HCLRC board members Randy Mustard and Lauren Walker.

Looking ahead to other potential Brownfield projects, Johansen said there is an abandoned store in New Petersburg, while Wagner said that near the former East Monroe Mill, they found abandoned underground tanks. Or, as Wagner said, “there’s always Gross-Feibel,” but Britton and board member Lauren Walker said it was tied up “in litigation.”

In other discussion:

• At the suggestion of Johansen, the board agreed to lower the minimum asking price of three HCLRC-owned properties in the city of Hillsboro to $9,000 each, as Johansen is seeking bids from potential buyers.

Previously, the 299 East South St. property was listed at $12,000; 453 East Main St. was $12,000; and 622 South East St. was $10,600, according to Johansen.

The board had voted in August to approve a bid package proposal for the properties, but Johansen said he had not moved forward due to their initial asking prices.

“We haven't really had any interest, and they've been on the market for quite a while,” Johansen said. “If we start that bid process, it would be difficult to get bids at what they're priced.”

Johansen added that he has heard adjoining property owners may be interested in some of the parcels, but not at the current asking prices.

“We [the Hillsboro Community Improvement Corporation] just sold 540 Johnson [Street] for $9,000,” Walker said. “I think we had it listed higher. We dropped it to nine [thousand], and we had a buyer.
“I don't know if nine [thousand] is a good number, but it was a vacant corner lot.”

Walker also pointed out that the HCLRC’s only real expenses for the properties have been “recording fees,” as Britton agreed, saying they used grant money to clean up the parcels.

Board member David Daniels asked if “for the sake of argument, dropping them $2,000” was a solution.

“Why don’t we knock them to nine, where it’s equivalent to what they just sold one for, and see what that does,” Britton said.

“That’s fine,” Daniels said, and made a motion to do so that passed 5-0.

• Johansen discussed several properties he has recently looked into for the HCLRC.

He shared his findings on the three parcels on Taylor Street in the Greenfield area (Madison Township), as requested by resident Richard Counter at the board’s August meeting. Johansen said the properties would likely qualify for Brownfield funding, but “it would have to go through probate,” as the owner died without a will and has multiple surviving relatives.

Wagner suggested that they could try to work with the Highland County Health Department to get a letter ordering blight cleanup.

“I’ve used that strategy before for Brownfield funding, for access,” he said.

Book agreed that it is possible they “could get it cleaned up that way.” Britton asked if the HCLRC should “try to foreclose on” the parcels now.

“If we do the foreclosure, and make it a priority, it’s at least a six-month process, probably closer to a year probably when it's all said and done,” Book said. “I don't want to miss the window on the cleanup money.”

Daniels pointed out that they could work on both ideas “concurrently,” and “if something happens in the meantime to advance or through probate quicker, then OK.”

“We could do the cleanup with the health department, and have the foreclosure going on at the same time,” Book said. “The blight [letter] is a good idea, though. That gets it cleaned up.”

Another potential property is on Cathys Court in the Rocky Fork Lake area, and back taxes are $33,510.87. Owners of both adjoining parcels are “interested” in purchasing the lot, but the landowner indicated he would prefer to “sell directly” to the neighbors instead of going through the land bank.

“The issue is that there's $33,000 in back taxes, so the neighbors are not interested in that,” Johansen said.

Johansen said he was able to reach the landowner, who said he “wants something out of it” if he’s going to get involved with the HCLRC.

“He wants something out of it, and he owes the county $33,000?” Walker said. “We’ll give him a tax foreclosure.”

Johansen said he has asked attorney Greg VanZant to do a title search in case the property owner changes his mind.

The owner of the other potential property — the former Belfast school on state Route 73 — is “not interested in forfeiting” the parcel, as noted by Britton.

• Johansen said the land bank is seeking bids for 2024 lawn care services for the parcels they own. However, he said the contractor will be “on a month to month basis, so that if we sell these properties, we can take them off the contract,” or they can add other parcels they acquire.

• Johansen reported that he and Book had a meeting last month with representatives of the Village of Greenfield to discuss using Building Demolition and Site Revitalization funds toward two parcels on Jefferson Street.

“We haven't heard anything back from them, but they were possibly wanting to do a transfer of property,” he said. “Their village CIC is not yet, but they're going to be, the owners of that property, and they would like to get it fixed up.

“They don't want to submit it for any Brownfield grants or anything of that sort. There wouldn't be a demo. They would like to rehab it.”

Book added that the village was “looking for our assistance as potentially being the owner of the property in an attempt to clean up so back taxes on the property.

“That's what land banks have been used for in the past, so we wanted to put that on everybody's radar that that's a way we could be helpful with Greenfield,” he said.

Attorney Todd Book

• In legal updates, Book said that he is working on obtaining a list of additional properties the land bank could acquire, as he is getting forfeited land lists from the auditor’s office.

“Over the years, if tax-foreclosure properties do not sell at tax foreclosure, they become forfeited properties owned by the state,” Book said. “As a land bank, we are entitled, if we're interested, in taking ownership of all of those forfeited properties — any of them or all on them.

“I think there are probably several that we may want to take advantage of and then sell those, so we can get those properties back in the stream of commerce in the sense of people paying taxes, but also maybe help with the operations of the land bank itself.”

Book also asked if the county was “aware” of the Lead Safe Ohio program from the state. Britton advised that Highland County Community Action was seeking the $200,000 designated for the county, as they will be the lead entity for that funding.

Book and Wagner also said the state is working on a new grant program, called Welcome Home Ohio, that will give land banks an opportunity to apply for “money to buy” residential properties.

“It could be an opportunity, if we see some properties that there could be some rehab work, that we may want to take the lead on getting them rehabbed,” Book said. “That could be a potential asset for the land bank.

“There's a lot of strings attached to it, in essence that the properties have to stay for working with workforce housing type situations. They have to be priced at a level that people can afford, and they're not allowed to be sold for higher than that price going forward. People that do this are kind of committing to that home for a period of time. They’re trying to figure out all the rules for it, but it's something we'll be watching.”

• In the fiscal report, Johansen reported an ending balance of $221,893.72 for the month of August, with expenses including payments for payroll, their financial software, their audit, several contractor invoices and legal fees, as well as payments to the Hillsboro Public Utilities and Highland County Clerk of Courts.

The board voted 5-0 to approve the fiscal report as well as to authorize Johansen to pay the outstanding bills, which include salary, utility, supply and legal invoices plus two payments to TetraTech for the Rocky Fork Truck Stop work.

• Johansen told the board that commissioners voted to designate the land bank as the lead entity for the two aforementioned state grant programs.

• Resident Tim Atkinson asked for an update on the Enchanted Hills Community Association parcels. He was advised that the parcels are still in the expedited foreclosure process, and a resolution is not expected for several months.

• It was also announced that the HCLRC’s October meeting has been canceled, with their next regular meeting scheduled for Nov. 16 at 9 a.m.

Environmental consultant Matt Wagner (front, center) speaks as HCLRC board members Vickie Warnock and David Daniels look on.

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