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Land bank board adds 13 properties to Building Demolition and Site Revitalization list; Brownfield updates, Hillsboro properties discussed

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Pictured (l-r) are Highland County land bank board president Terry Britton; land bank coordinator Jason Johansen; and board members Lauren Walker and Randy Mustard. (HCP Photos/Caitlin Forsha)
Caitlin Forsha, The Highland County Press

With the state officially announcing guidelines for the next round of two funding programs used by the Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation, the land bank board added more prospective properties to their list of sites to clean up Thursday, Nov. 16.

Highland County will again have a $500,000 set-aside through the next round of the Ohio Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program, as announced by the Governor’s Office Oct. 31. Land Bank Coordinator Jason Johansen said in September that there is also “$77,895 left over in additional funding that we didn't spend” from the first iteration of the program, which the county is also permitted to use.

After voting in September to approve a preliminary list of 17 potential properties for the Building Demolition and Site Revitalization funding, the board signed off on another 13 properties identified by Johansen Thursday. The new list includes nine properties or structures in the Lynchburg area, including seven in Dodson Township and two in Salem Township; two in the city of Hillsboro; one in the village of Greenfield; and one in Union Township.

“Once again, I'm going to do the bidding for the demo first so we can get our total amount, get as close as we can do the $77,895 that was left over from the first round and see how many projects we can get,” Johansen said. “Then we'll have to put out asbestos bids in the spring.”

The property in Greenfield could potentially be a Brownfield project, according to Johansen, meaning it would go through the other Ohio funding, the Brownfield Remediation Program. He said the property owner advised it was formerly “a machine shop” and may have “tanks underground.” Environmental consultant Matt Wagner of TetraTech said they would “need to have a phase one” assessment done in order to determine which grant program to use.

Also of note, two of the Lynchburg parcels are “downtown buildings connected on each side” on Main Street, while another two are “two houses side by side on the same parcel” on Dawson Road, Johansen said.

The first list of 17 properties approved in September included 10 properties in the city of Hillsboro, two in Paint Township and one each in Brushcreek, Clay, Fairfield, Marshall and Penn townships.

In September, Johansen said the initial list had 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. As of Thursday, he said it appears that all four will be eligible for funding.

“The new guidelines were released,” Johansen said. “It was stated that the trailers must be affixed and not mobile. We have four trailers that were approved at the last meeting, and we determined that all four of those trailers are affixed and possibly will be approved by ODOD.”

Another property on the list reviewed in September is the former Buford school property, which has an underground storage tank that still needs to be removed. Johansen said Thursday that he has checked out the property and “there is some stuff in there” that needs cleaned up.

One of the properties is a property in Samantha owned by land bank, and Johansen reported Thursday that he has “received a verification of blight letter from the Highland County North Joint Fire Department in Leesburg so that we can tear that down.”

For an update on two adjoining parcels on Heather Moor Trail — which the land bank acquired through tax foreclosure, and which are also slated for cleanup using grant funding — Johansen said that the apparent squatter has left the premises.

Board member Randy Mustard had previously alerted the HCLRC to the squatting issues, and they did a three-day notice, then a 30-day notice in September.

“We believe the squatter is out and living in a camper on another property,” Johansen said.

In addition to the properties, Johansen reviewed the timeline for the Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program. He said that the application period opened Oct. 31, and they can “add and remove projects” as needed until April 1, 2024.

“Work can be started upon approval of each project,” he said.

As brought out by Wagner, there will also be possible additional grant dollars available after the initial funding round, with funds not expended by other counties.

“After April 1, anyone who didn't use their full amount of the 88 counties, it'll go into a pool,” Johansen said. “I think that becomes available on July 4, 2024. The land bank would pay 25 percent of each project, and the ODOD would pay 75 percent.”

Johansen said that he was still working to identify more properties for this program in addition to the 30 now approved. Mustard said that he can “show you some more you probably haven’t even found” yet in Paint Township.

Legal counsel Todd Book said that “some counties are saying they want matching [funds]” with all of their projects in order to stretch the $500,000 further. Wagner told Johansen he would “encourage him be proactive on the submittal” of properties, “as long as you know you could have a match.

Attorney Todd Book.

“At this point, assuming all those would happen, that's 30 properties,” Book added. “Each one will be different price-wise, but even if it's $15,000, now you're maxed out right there.

“The good thing is I think we’ll be able to clean up a lot of properties and take advantage of what the state’s offering.”

Book also mentioned that the HCLRC will also want to determine whether or not to use any of the grant funding toward “administrative costs” for overseeing the projects, which would offset some expenses for him and Johansen but “cuts down on how much can be actually torn down.”

The state’s other funding program — the Brownfield Remediation grants — was also discussed, as the HCLRC both reviewed their current projects and discussed future ideas.

Two projects — the former Rocky Fork Truck Stop in Rainsboro and the former East Monroe Mill — were fully funded in Highland County through the Brownfield Remediation grants. The East Monroe Mill site is completed, including reporting to the state. Johansen said that the state has authorized several recent reimbursements for work at the truck stop.

Wagner gave an update on the site of the truck stop.

“We have cleaned up all the soil, and we do have some groundwater exceedances that we're now working with BUSTR [the Bureau of Underground Storage Tank Regulations] on,” he said. “The tier one investigation and delineation report should be going to BUSTR, I would say, next week.

“The next phase is what's called a tier two, in which we then do some modeling as relates to the water, and then we'll likely do some spot injections, where we actually physically treat the water.”

However, Wagner said that the site itself should be ready for developers to make plans for construction, as he said that he and Johansen could reach out to explain everything to the property owners.

“We’re at a position now where regardless of what we're continuing to do out there, it should not impede development,” Wagner said. “From that standpoint, you know, mission accomplished on that regard. We just need to educate the owner in terms of what they can and can't do out at the site.”

Board president Terrry Britton asked them to “contact [the property owners] very shortly so they can go ahead and make plans.”

Looking ahead to the next round, Johansen said the state released guidelines for the new round of Brownfield funding Wednesday.

“You are getting a million dollars this year, and you’re going to get another million dollars next year,” Wagner said. “You can have over a million dollars’ worth of projects, but that’s your no match requirements. You have up to a million dollars in no match.”

The application period opens Dec. 5, and like the other grant program, applications are being accepted through April 1.

“Keep in mind that we can do a couple of things just like we did in the last round, where we may do assessment work initially, to then come back next year to do the remediation work,” Wagner said. “There's a lot of ways we can do this. We can get a lot of work done, but it would be cash work. You'd have to pay to get assessment work actually completed to then be in a position to request the demo or remediation money.

“Or, like I said, we can do what we're doing where we've been kind of doing them in steps, so it’s not causing you to have to come out of pocket.”

However, Wagner stressed that “there is a requirement that … you can't submit without having phase one assessments” for projects.

“A lot of times we've been working with Ohio EPA target brownfield assessments to pay for that work, which we could still do,” Wagner said. “If we're only looking at a million dollars, then we have until April 5, to apply, but let's say we have a big project that we know is going to cost over a million dollars. We would want to get that application as soon as possible, because similar to the revitalization money, there's $175 million total for the year, so each county is only getting $1 million.

‘”That’s $88 [million], so there’s an extra $90 [million] that’s available. That’s what your ‘first come, first serve’ concern is, from that aspect.”

Wagner encouraged anyone with information on potential brownfield sites for cleanup to come forward. In addition to those already mentioned, board member and Hillsboro code enforcement officer Lauren Walker said she believed the former Bell’s Foundry site would be a potential site. She said she would also like to look into a former gas station/oil shop in the city, although previous discussions with property owners had not led to any interest.

Johansen said he checked out a property in East Monroe previously mentioned by Wagner, which he said may have a kerosene tank underground. He has also reached out to the property owner of an abandoned store in New Petersburg.
“From the sounds of it, there's more [Building Demolition and Site Revitalization properties] than there is Brownfield, so if something would qualify for both, you may want to kind of push it toward the Brownfield side,” Book said.

“With the caveat that we're going to have to have assessments done on [Brownfield sites], whereas with Revitalization you don’t,” Wagner added.

Also during Thursday’s meeting:

• There was a discussion of next steps for three properties owned by the HCLRC in Hillsboro — 453 East Main St., 229 East South St. and 622 South East St. — as Book said he would put together a list of suggestions to review at the December meeting.

Johansen said that he has had “a little bit of interest” from some individuals but no concrete offers thus far. At their most recent meeting, in September, the board agreed to lower the minimum asking price of each parcel to $9,000.

Britton asked Book if there is “any kind of timeline that we have to stick with” regarding posting bids to potentially sell the parcels. Book said it was “up to” the board.

“You guys are the owners,” Book said. “You have the ability to sell it — under the guidelines and the rules— however you want, whether by bid or listing with a real estate agent or other option, whatever you want to do.

“Timing wise, I mean, obviously these things don't eat a whole lot, but it does cost money every month to maintain them. But then a lot of times too, in winter months, people aren't really willing to do a lot of investing or necessarily purchase property.”

Britton asked if they should think about dropping the price again or putting it out for bid. In response, Book asked if Johansen had heard any potential prices from interested buyers.

“We had someone that said they would pay maybe $2,000 for the 622 South East St.,” Johansen said. “He said he would stick a garage on it or a pole barn.”

Walker pointed out that under the city’s zoning code, that type of construction “without a principal structure” would not be permissible and cautioned Johansen to “be careful what people’s intentions are” with the properties.  

Another potential buyer had asked if they would “come down from” their $9,000 asking price, and Johansen said he advised them to bring an offer to the November meeting, but had not heard back.

“We’re not selling them at $9 [thousand], so I’d hate to start a bid at $9 [thousand],” Johansen said. “But maybe people just don’t know about it, don’t know that they’re out there.”

Book said going through a real estate agent instead, which has been considered by the board in the past, could also be “something to think about.”

As mentioned in September and again Thursday, the $9,000 price was based off the sale price of a vacant lot on Johnson Street sold by the Hillsboro Community Improvement Corporation. Walker said that the buyers are now building a house on the lot, and that’s something she “would like to see” done with the HCLRC’s properties.

“Maybe [we could] even send these properties to the USDA Rural Development Office, see if they have any applicants that are doing first-time mortgages,” Walker said.

Wagner then asked about the possibility of the HCLRC constructing homes themselves.

“Under that Welcome Home Ohio [program] — I don’t know if we’d want to do that, but we could get a grant to build a home, continue to be the owner of that and rent it out,” Book said.

Wagner said it could be a source of “revenue to sustain the land bank.” Another option, he said, could be looking at “organizations always trying to build a home.” Book and Walker listed Habitat for Humanity, the Highland County Board of DD and the Highland Housing Board as examples.

Book said that generally those groups want lots that are either “donated or [sold for] close to nothing,” but doing so would come with the benefit of having additional housing and getting the properties back back in the tax base, as Wagner and Walker said.

“When it comes to this market in the county, are we under homed?” Book asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Britton said. “Housing is a big deal in this county.”

Walker added that the newest affordable housing complex in Hillsboro “had over a thousand applications.”

“Maybe we can attract developers, if the deal is they're going to build something, then the land is donated, so they can build it,” Wagner said.

Referring back to Wagner’s original idea, Book said the board could consider going that route themselves, either using grant funding or with the land bank’s own funds.

“If people are in need of homes, we could build a duplex, provide a reasonable rate and allow whatever’s excess, after we do management and all that, to come to the land bank as a source of revenue,” Book said. “That's a big investment, but you're investing in the community. That's part of the reason that you have a land bank, to clean it up and also to invest in the community.”  

Book said he and Johansen could come up with a list of “options” for the properties.

“We don’t want to sit on these things,” Britton said.

• In other property updates, Johansen said that the Enchanted Hills Community Association parcels are still in the expedited tax foreclosure process. He is also still working to contact the landowner of a parcel on Cathys Court in the Rocky Fork Lake area, which has back taxes totaling $33,510.87.

“Greg VanZant did a title search,” Johansen said. “There were some mortgage liens that were found. I contacted the owner and he said he was busy, he would call me back tomorrow, and he never did. I called back the next day, no answer.

“I’m guessing tax foreclosure is probably going to have to be the only option.”

Book reminded the board that in September, Johansen advised the landowner said he “wants something out of it” if he’s going to get involved with the HCLRC.

Book also spoke about 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 in September 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. In the meantime, however, Wagner suggested that they could try to work with the Highland County Health Department to get a letter ordering blight cleanup.

“We started that process,” Book said Thursday. “We’ve actually had a call with the Health Department locally, and they're going to do a little searching. They want us also to bring a little bit more to the table when it comes to their authority to do this, so we're getting that together. That's making some progress, and hopefully, that'll give us the authority to access it, and then we can put it on the demo and clean up list and get that taken care of.”

Book said he is also finalizing a list of additional properties the land bank could acquire, as he is getting forfeited land lists from the auditor’s office.

“Hopefully, by the next meeting, I'll have that list together for us to act on,” he said.

• The board voted to award the 2024 lawn care service bids to the low bidder, Dan Butcher, who submitted a packet totaling $480 per month. That includes the three aforementioned Hillsboro properties owned by the land bank, at a cost of $160 per property, per month.

The HCLRC received five bids altogether, including Deep Green Lawn Maintenance, $540; Kent’s Lawn and Property Maintenance, $540; Watson’s Full Service Lawn Care, $720; and Highland Power Wash LLC, $900.

In response to a question from Walker, Johansen clarified that the contract is set up for each individual property, so they can be removed in the event the parcels get sold.

• The board approved the September and October financial reports as presented. As of the end of October, Johansen reported a bank balance of $466,138.56.

Deposits during that two-month period included their real estate tax settlement payment and reimbursements from the Ohio Department of Development for their Brownfield projects.

Expenses included bookkeeping software charges; payments to SOS for supplies; rent; payment of invoices to TetraTech for Brownfield work; utility payments for a land bank-owned property; legal fees; and Johansen’s salary and expenses.

Also approved during the financial report was a motion to approve payment of outstanding bills, including for advertising bid notices; legal fees; a contractor invoice for mowing; office supplies; Tetra Tech’s Brownfield work; and Johansen’s salary and expenses.

• Johansen reported that he fulfilled a public records request from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office in reference to a presentation at a 2022 land bank meeting. Although that was prior to Johansen’s tenure, he said he sent any information from the minutes he could find to the AG’s investigator.

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