By REBECCA WEBSTER
Recorder News Staff
It was an unordinary setting for a Committee of the Whole meeting Thursday, but Common Council members got a first-hand glimpse of what having a local land bank could do for Amsterdam neighborhoods.
The five council members met Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane, City Director of Community and Economic Development Robert von Hasseln, and Amsterdam Land Bank Advisory Committee member Robert Purtell at 35 Julia St. Thursday evening.
The abandoned home, now owned by the city of Amsterdam, is the first property to be considered for Amsterdam's new land bank.
According to city documents, City Assessor Calvin Cline along with Amsterdam Fire Chief Richard Liberti inspected the property earlier this week and found it "to be in such poor condition as to be uninhabitable."
The building was deemed unsafe and occupancy prohibited in October 2011, documents say.
Council members walked into the home with masks over their mouths to inspect the poor conditions.
Thane told council members while standing in the residence that though the home is a mess inside, it has big potential.
"The reason I wanted you to see it is because it is a property that could be rehabbed and then it would save this neighborhood basically because it's the broken window philosophy that if there's a dilapidated property, then it begins to spread to the surrounding properties," Thane told them. "And in fact, it could the lower the property values of the buildings around it."
Thane said the building has a new roof on it and if the land bank can take care of the getting the inside rehabbed, it will stop the spread of blight to surrounding homes.
Following the walk-through, council members met at the mayors office to further discuss the land bank opportunities.
Thane told the council that the Land Reutilization Corporation of the Capital Region -- the official title for the land bank partnership between the city of Amsterdam, the city of Schenectady, and Schenectady County -- has been meeting to bring together a concrete idea of how to get the local land bank up and running.
And the local Amsterdam Land Bank Advisory Committee has met to do their part.
"We've been talking about how to best proceed with the strategy for the land bank that will successfully work with this city and our goal to stabilize neighborhoods and improve neighborhoods," Thane said.
She added that it was the opinion of the advisory committee to go to neighborhoods that are "not as compromised" and start with properties that they can rescue.
The Julia Street home was chosen for the start because with a rehab, the building has the potential bring a little bit of revenue to the local land bank to allow them to continue to the work in other neighborhoods, without taking from a city contingency fund or fund balance, she explained
Purtell told the council that the local advisory committee made the goal of stabilizing neighborhoods the best they can "and as efficiently as we can."
And though the city has received Community Development Block Grants that go toward rehabbing inhabited homes, it doesn't necessarily stabilize neighborhoods, he said.
"We felt that there's so many buildings and places like Grand Street and James Street and Jay Street and down in the East End that we could drown in what we were trying to do," Purtell said. "So we tried to establish a pattern and what we did was took from the outside."
Purtell said that one of the reasons they chose Julia Street to start was because it presented the largest opportunity to work with contractors and take the property away from the possibility of going to auction.
Fourth Ward Alderman David Dybas had many questions about the land bank, including whether the policies and procedures are finished or if the advisory board and land bank are starting projects without having those in place.
But von Hasseln said that the land bank group is legally ready to take properties, and he explained to the group the process.
"The city engineer needs to determine that it's not needed for municipal purpose. Once that's done then we'll have to have an appraisal of the property. Then you as a Common Council will have to concur and give permission for it to be conveyed to the land bank. Once the documents are drawn up and the land bank officially receives the property, they will assume the property maintenance obligation and costs."
Due to the land bank's nonprofit status, they will not be required to pay city, county, or school taxes, and the city will be relieved of its obligation to make the county and school district hold taxes for that property, he explained.
The land bank will then determine what the most efficient way is to rehab it and bring it to a standard slightly higher than the surrounding neighborhood, von Hasseln continued.
"And then they mark it and sell it. The money from the proceeds goes into a lock box, if you will, in that money from an Amsterdam property can only be used for projects in Amsterdam."
Von Hasseln added that under state law, the county, school district, and city then have the option to remit half of the property tax collected on the property once it is returned to the tax rolls to the land bank for a period of up to five years.
The money would go right back into land bank rehabilitation of properties.
Later in the meeting, First Ward Alderman Joseph Isabel asked the mayor whether there were success stories from the first round of land banks started about two years ago.
Thane said she's heard of many success stories from municipalities from across the country.
And though she said she would be willing to have a resolution to put up at the next meeting about the Julia Street property, Dybas said he thought it was too soon, as he and fellow council members need time to go through the documentation for the land bank procedures.
At the April 16 meeting of the Common Council, council members will hear from Robert Howard, President of the Land Reutilization Corporation of the Capital Region, who will continue the flow of information to the council about the land bank's progress.