City group hears from Huntington land bank leader

PARKERSBURG – The coordinator of West Virginia’s only land bank met Wednesday with a group of citizens and city officials to discuss the possibility of establishing a land reuse agency here.

Christal Perry, with the Huntington Urban Renewal Authority Land Bank, attended a meeting of the Neighbors Housing Group Wednesday at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. The group is an offshoot of the Neighbors program initiated by Councilwoman Kim Coram and the Rev. Marjorie Bevans, rector at Good Shepherd.

The program aims to revitalize the neighborhood in a variety of ways, including changing the demographics by encouraging more home ownership and a less transitory population.

“Until we can control the land, we can’t really develop,” Coram said.

Passed in March, West Virginia Senate Bill 579 allows municipalities, counties or a combination thereof to create a land reuse agency, which would have the power to acquire, sell, develop and rent property. It could also set conditions on the use of land it is selling.

“You can actually rehabilitate; you can own and rent; you can manage it yourself,” said City Attorney Joe Santer, who attended Wednesday’s meeting at Coram’s request.

The agency would be overseen by a board established, but not controlled, by council. It would be similar to a land bank in many ways, but could not obtain land through the use of eminent domain, nor could it accept land acquired by the city through eminent domain after June 7 of this year.

Perry said she’s seen progress in the five years since Huntington established its land bank under the state’s home rule program.

“We’re learning as we go, and we’re making mistakes ’cause we’re kind of the guinea pig,” she said.

But to show the success of the program, Perry points to the 103 parcels the land bank has resold.

“Those are 103 properties that have been put back into productive use,” she said.

That’s the goal on which to concentrate, Perry said, not necessarily making money through real estate transactions.

“Normally, nine out of 10, we don’t profit on anything,” she said. “You have to have that vision of you are wanting to better your city.”

Coram invited Perry after hearing a presentation she made last week at the annual West Virginia Municipal League conference. She wanted to hear Perry’s experience and input as she prepares to lobby fellow council members to pass an ordinance creating a land reuse agency.

“I’m a junior councilperson, and I’m not being effective,” Coram said. “I want to make it as easy as possible for them (other council members) to say yes.”

Coram first broached the subject of creating a land reuse agency when council’s Finance Committee was considering business and occupation tax incentives to encourage people to redevelop run-down properties earlier this year, but there was not much interest initially shown.

Perry said the Huntington land bank acquires the majority of its properties at tax sales. It gets no special consideration and has to bid just like any other prospective buyer.

And while Perry will back off if a reputable developer has an interest in a property, she said she’ll go “toe-to-toe” with landlords who tend to put little interest or effort into their properties and abandon them as they deteriorate.

“That was our mission was to run those people off, and we did,” she said. “We will bid competitively if we think somebody’s going to bid on that property for a not-so-good use.”

Coram asked Santer what she would need to do to get council’s support for the initiative. He said he imagined some reservations would come when funding and staffing were considered.

“In my opinion, the city doesn’t have the personnel to do that, both in expertise and numbers,” he said.

Coram said perhaps having funding and staffing clearly spelled out would help sway some council members, but Santer also noted that the precise workings of the agency would be determined by the board.

Perry said the Huntington land bank only has two staff members- herself and property maintenance foreman Jerrod Sneed, who also attended Wednesday’s meeting. They do hire laborers as needed to maintain properties.

Half of Perry’s salary is covered by Community Development Block Grant funds and the other half comes from Huntington’s Urban Renewal Authority.

Coram, Bevans and Tres Ross, executive director of the Ross Foundation, agreed to form a subcommittee to develop a presentation for council members. Perry offered to come back and speak or play host to Parkersburg officials in Huntington to show them how the land bank has worked.