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Land bank reviewing 'long lists' of parcels for potential cleanup, acquisition

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Pictured (l-r) are Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation board president Terry Britton; Land Bank Coordinator Jason Johansen; and HCLRC board member Randy Mustard. (HCP Photo/Caitlin Forsha)
Caitlin Forsha, The Highland County Press

During their April 19 meeting, Highland County Land Bank Coordinator Jason Johansen told the Highland County Land Reutilization Corporation board that he is compiling “long lists” of potential properties, as the land bank’s monthly agenda included updates on numerous different parcels.

Although the properties were never in the land bank’s possession, Johansen announced Thursday that all 11 former Enchanted Hills Community Association parcels have been sold at sheriff’s sale.  

The HCLRC board has been discussing ways to acquire the properties for three years, including during some or all of three different land bank coordinators’ tenures. The association no longer exists, and no taxes had been paid since 2017. 

The parcels eventually went into expedited foreclosure through the Highland County Prosecutor’s Office, and a judgment order out of Highland County Common Pleas Court ruled that they should be sold at sheriff’s sale.

“They all sold, and the county was able to receive all the delinquent taxes and pay off the lien holder,” Johansen said. “Over 30 individuals showed up to the sale, so there was plenty of interest in that neighborhood. That's really good for the lake to have that many people show up for that, so that was good.”

According to court records, the 11 parcels sold for a combined total of $151,803.40, not counting fees.

“They sold them all individually,” Johansen said. “They couldn't come to the land bank because there was a lien, and they wanted to recoup their money from that, and then pay off the lien holder. That's why they didn't come this way. 

“County-wise, the delinquent taxes were collected and the land value was collected, they could pay off the lien holder, so I think all went pretty well there and they didn’t even need to use the land bank.”

Since the Enchanted Hills properties are out of foreclosure, HCLRC board president Terry Britton said the Highland County Prosecutor’s Office is ready to work on their next expedited foreclosure case. He asked Johansen to “put together at least three” parcels for the board to discuss, with the group voting to prioritize 11470 Spruance Road in Marshall Township next.

The parcel has back taxes due of $74,045.60, Johansen said, and the land is valued at $50,600.

“The owner passed away in 2016,” he said. “It's an eight-acre lot, and it needs quite a bit of cleanup. It looks pretty overgrown from the road.”

Johansen said it “could potentially be a brownfield,” as Britton said he thought there had been a store or gas station on the property, and board member Randy Mustard said at least at one point, there were tires dumped there.

Once that property is finished, the board moved to authorize Johansen to work with the Prosecutor’s Office on foreclosing on two other properties: one in Paint Township on Cathys Court, with $35,176.46 in delinquent taxes; and one on South Glenn Street in Hillsboro, which has both $25,150.16 in back taxes and “an unreleased mortgage of $55,000” but no structure to clean up. Johansen said he has had “quite a few calls” on all three parcels. 

In unrelated action, Johansen reminded the board that they will eventually need to “make a determination” about how to sell the 6747/6749 Heather Moor Trail parcels in Paint Township, which are owned by the land bank and currently being cleaned up. After a discussion, the board agreed that it was developable land and to sell it as such.

“We talked about this last meeting, just about in regard to whether it was a side lot or this was a developable property,” Johansen said. “In the past, you know, usually we do turn to the to the neighbors, but we have to make a determination if it's a side lot or if it's a piece of property that is developable. 

“We have had quite a bit of interest, and I think that could be a little bit different from in the past, where there may not have been as much interest in a few of those properties.”

A neighboring landowner was in attendance at the meeting and said he was under the impression he would get “first choice” of the parcels. 

“It’s been a precedent,” he said. “I mean, several properties, the neighbors had their first choice in buying a lot that come up for sale like that.

“All of a sudden, things seem to have changed.”

The neighbor added that he “had to put up with that mess” as a neighboring parcel for “four years” while it looked “terrible.” Another neighbor is also interested, he said.

“We did a thorough review of our policies and procedures to try to determine whether this was considered a side lot, or if it was considered a developable piece of property.,” Johansen explained to the gentleman. “In our policies and procedures, neighbors are first dibs on side lots, but side lots are determined as undevelopable. 

“I think that's where there was the little bit of confusion on whether the neighbor gets first dibs, or they don’t.”

Attorney Todd Book agreed that the land bank’s “policies and procedures have been in place for years, and it outlines” their options on selling parcels in their possession.

Britton said, “I think it's somewhat clear that this is a buildable lot,” but said it was “up to the board to say.”

“It’s got septic service,” board member David Daniels said. “It’s got the equipment to service development, so, yeah, I think you have to list it as a developable lot.”

Britton then pointed out that there are two parcels, but only one shared grinder pump, which are no longer permissible under the county’s sewer use rules. “Do we combine those to make that one lot?” he asked. “If we sell it as two lots, then something would have to be done to put another grinder on there.”

Board member Lauren Walker said that if a prospective buyer is “willing to have that expense” of paying for a new grinder, then “I’d rather have two houses than one” if there is enough interest in the land.

“The issue is the grinder is on the center of the property, so which way does the grinder go?” Britton said. “That's the problem.”

Johansen said that only one of the two parcels had a structure on it previously. “I think it would be pretty tight to put two structures there,” he said. “I think one would be pretty ideal.”

Book said the discussion still may be “premature in the sense that” work is still being done on the parcels, but Daniels said he was ready to make the motion “that it is a buildable, improved lot rather than a side lot,” which passed.

On the topic of side lots, during his legal update, Book asked the board if they wanted to revisit their current policy of selling side lots for $100. 

“Do we want to think about upping that price?” Book asked. “We don't really have any in the side lot program at this moment, and so it would be an opportunity to kind of establish what we want to do.”

Depending on if/how much they raise that price, he said they may also have to update another policy that the HCLRC can “never sell a piece of property for less than $300 except for the side lot.”  

Britton asked Book to put together “some recommendations” to review.

In other property updates, Johansen said they are asking the auditor’s office to reassess a small landlocked vacant swale parcel on U.S. 62 outside of Leesburg that the board has acquired. The land value is listed at $28,700 because it is “incorrectly listed at 16.48 acres” instead of its actual 1.703 acres, he said.

“We’re going to have to see if they can reassess that and see if we can get a better pricing point for what that parcel would be worth,” Johansen said. “It’s just a swale runoff. I’m not quite sure if it's developable land or not. We’d just have to maybe talk with someone that does this to see what it’s worth.”

Four other parcels have also been identified as potential donations to the HCLRC, including two in the Rocky Fork Lake area and one each in Hillsboro and Highland, according to Johansen. 

The Hillsboro parcel (on North East Street) has an unreleased mortgage, and one of the RFL properties (on Elmhurst Trail) has a lien for assessments, Johansen said. Meanwhile, the Highland property has “an unreleased mortgage of $186,000, and it was foreclosed on in 2006, so we’re going to need to look into that one,” he told the board.

“I do want to mention, there's been quite a few properties brought to the land bank attention in recent weeks,” Johansen said. “There’s long lists that I'm going to go through, start sending out letters, try to contact heirs, look up obituaries, do what I do and see we can move forward with any of those properties. Quite a few of them are at the lake, in those neighborhoods, but there’s also ones throughout the whole county that we’re looking into.”

Britton said that is “great” news but reminded the community that the land bank has “guidelines that we have to follow” on obtaining these parcels.

“If there's liens and all the other things that’s on these properties, you think we can get ahold of them, but some of them, we can’t,” Britton said. “They have to go through courts or foreclosures or whatever it takes. Sometimes it takes a long, long time to get that taken care of, but keep up the good work as far as letting us know.”

The meeting also included updates on state grant funding.

Johansen reported that Evans Landscaping has made progress on the properties selected for demolition using leftover state funds, as the land bank has $77,895 in remaining funding from the last state budget cycle’s Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program, which they are still permitted to use.

According to Johansen, demolition has been completed on 9955 U.S. 62 in Samantha (Penn Township), 142 North Fairfield St. in Leesburg (Fairfield Township), 8151 Fall Creek Rd. in Samantha (Penn Township), 3479 Pleasant Road in Marshall Township and 6747/6749 Heather Moor Trail in Paint Township. The two properties located within the city of Hillsboro —140 East North St. and 212 North High St. — are on track to be done soon, he said.

“They have finished all but the seedings and strawing on five of them,” Johansen said. “They were going to do North Street today, but it looks like they're going to tackle that early next week, so those two should be down by next week. 

“They’re going to go through the last week of April and seed and straw all seven properties.”

Of the $77,895 in grant funding, Johansen said that the cost breakdown includes $2,800 for asbestos surveys; $12,975 for asbestos abatement; $58,672.32 in demolition costs; and $3,447.68 in administrative funding.

“They are almost done,” he said. “They're going to get it done before the May 1 deadline, and then I will go through and submit everything, and we should be good to go.”

He said that Evans Landscaping has been “really good to work with,” as Britton also spoke about their work thus far.

“I don’t know if any of the board members has seen the work that Evans has been doing on teardown, but they’re moving right along and not wasting any time,” Britton said. “The lots that I've looked at, they've done pretty nice jobs, pretty clean, so that’s been a good deal.”

For the 2024-25 iteration of the Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program, Johansen said they have not yet received word on their application, which includes 41 properties (18 properties in Liberty Township; six in Dodson Township; three each in Fairfield, Madison and Paint Townships; two each in Brushcreek Salem and Union Townships; and one each in New Market and Clay Townships). 

“We don't know if we're going to just have the $500,000 set aside, or if we are going to get approved for an additional $150,000, which we're going to match $50,000 to take it to $700,000,” Johansen said. “We should know in the coming weeks on that.”

Since the land bank board’s last meeting, asbestos has been identified in another parcel, bringing the number of “hot demos” to six (three in Liberty Township and one each in Union, Salem and New Market Townships).

“That's where the asbestos inside the house is too dangerous to abate,” Johansen said. “I talked with a few contractors, and they think it would be best to put all of those in one bid packet, so you have one abatement contractor working with with one demolition contractor, and that just makes it a little bit easier.”

The board approved a motion to seek requests for proposals for asbestos abatement on those parcels.

Johansen said that he has also already reached out to the Highland County Health Department to make a list of “the recorded wells and septic tanks for all of our future projects” to give to future demolition contractors.

Johansen is also maintaining a running list of other possible properties to clean up if they have leftover funds again, including two previously announced properties that are “pending ownership” by adjacent property owners — one on East Main Street in Hillsboro and one on North Shore Road in Paint Township — and a new one added Thursday on Orebaugh Road in Salem Township.

“[The Orebaugh Road property owner] is just looking to have it torn down, and and I told him if we had any money left over at the end of the program that we'd reach out to him and let him know,” Johansen said. 

As for the other state grant program — the Brownfield Remediation Program, for which the county has a $1 million set-aside — Johansen said their application has also been submitted, with four properties. One of the parcels submitted was the former Rocky Fork Truck Stop, for which the county received $465,399 as part of the first round of Brownfield grants.

“We've gotten full use of our million dollars, and we're going to draw down quite a bit of money and admin dollars,” Johansen said. “Rocky Fork still needs a lot of remediation, and so we went ahead and put that back in there. 

“Phase one [assessments] are complete on the tank farm, the gas station and the machine shop.”

Consultant Matt Wagner of TetraTech added that they are working to “close out” work from the first round of Brownfield funding for the truck stop “so we can start the next round.

“Terry and Jason and I are going to meet with the owners of Rocky Fork and kind of discuss, perhaps, a matching contribution to the land bank,” Wagner said. “That's something that is on the table that we’ve talked about.”

The land bank board is also seeking funding to clean up a parcel containing an underground storage tank in East Monroe; a former gas station in Hillsboro; and a former machine shop in Greenfield as three new projects.  

“All those went through, and hats off to Jason on going out and getting all the access agreements and all the various documents that needed signed,” Wagner said. “It's a process, and it went well, so we’re excited about that.

“We anticipate the grants to come out within the next 30 to 60 days, so that we can start these projects. Hopefully we’ll have more information for everybody at the next meeting.”

Wagner added that the Ohio Land Bank Conference will be held April 24, while Johansen pointed out that the 2024 Ohio Brownfields Conference is set for May 7, so they hope to receive more details then.

In other action, the board approved the March financial report as presented by Johansen, with an ending balance of $408,558.46. Expenses over the past month included payments to the Highland County Treasurer and Auditor’s offices; utility payments to the City of Hillsboro; and checks for property maintenance services, legal fees, asbestos surveys, tax return prep and office supplies. 

Also approved was a motion to approve the payment of outstanding bills. One highlighted by Johansen was an invoice of $2,655.35 to repair the grinder damaged during demolition work at the two parcels on Heather Moor. He said that Evans Landscaping has agreed to pay half of that bill, while the other half will be covered by administrative funding costs from the Building Demolition grant. 

Other invoices included bills for legal fees; demolition projects; rent; Johansen’s salary/expenses; asbestos surveys and abatement; office supplies; and brownfield remediation work by TetraTech. 

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