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Town of Tonawanda sets up task force on abandoned properties

Homes left vacant and abandoned through an incomplete foreclosure process - also known as zombie properties -- can leave a black eye in any neighborhood, but across Western New York some communities are taking action to try to end the cycle.

The Town of Tonawanda was awarded a $250,000 grant from the New York State Attorney General's Office through the Zombie Home Program late last year.

On Monday, the Town Board created an Abandoned Properties Task Force.

The goal of the group will be to both identify the properties and get them back on the tax rolls -- as well as prosecute some of the worst cases.

The Town of Tonawanda task force will use mapping software to create a database of zombie properties.

James Hartz, director of planning and development, said the information will be shared in a state database so that some of the worst offenders across the state can be identified.

New state legislation - the Abandoned Property Relief Act - is a "game-changer" and will be part of the town's two-phased approach to identify and then prosecute the worst cases, Hartz said.

The state's relief act "puts some teeth" into dealing with zombie properties, Town Board member John A. Bargnesi Jr. said.

"We never had a way to prosecute. Now we do," said Bargnesi. "We have a way to go after the banks who are foreclosing on these homes that have become abandoned. We can enforce them with a penalty of up to $500 per day."

Town Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger said once the task force is established they can begin reaching out to zombie home owners, whether they are bank owned or privately owned, with the intention of getting the owner to take action on the property.

"The first step is that we have to identify the zombie homes," Emminger said. "It affects property values, which are residents' largest asset."

He said no neighborhood is immune to zombie properties, noting his own neighborhood was once affected by an abandoned property which took three years to remediate and get back on the tax rolls. "I know first-hand the frustration of the residents," Emminger said.

Hartz said they plan to hire an attorney to help prosecute about 40 of the worst cases.

He said in the past banks really had no incentives to clean up a property and the homes were "just sitting there rotting."

But under the relief act, adopted by the state at the end of the 2016 session, when a bank starts a foreclosure it is required to report it to the state and to inspect the property regularly to make sure it is not vacant. If the property does become vacant, the bank has maintenance responsibilities under the new law, Hartz said.

"That's the real game-changer. The hammer to keep these properties cleaned up and maintained," Hartz said.

The number of zombie properties in the town is constantly in flux, Hartz said. The town has 33,000 properties in total, including about 1,000 vacant properties, approximately 200 of which are suspected of being zombie properties, he said.

A total of 17 Western New York communities received grants totaling $2.9 million from a nearly $13 million pool of state funds aimed at addressing zombie properties which are stuck in the foreclosure process.

The funds for the Zombie Remediation and Prevention Initiative come from a $3.2 billion settlement between Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and Morgan Stanley, a financial services corporation.

In addition to the Town of Tonawanda, Zombie Remediation and Prevention Initiative grants were also awarded to the cities of Batavia, $66,500; Buffalo, $350,000; Dunkirk, $125,500; Jamestown, $147,970; Lackawanna, $100,000; Lockport, $150,000; Niagara Falls, $250,000; North Tonawanda, $90,000; Olean, $100,000; City of Tonawanda, $150,000; the towns of Amherst and Village of Williamsville, $350,000; Cheektowaga, $250,000; Evans, $100,000;  West Seneca, $175,000; Town and Village of Hamburg, $175,000; and the Village of Albion, $75,000.

The Town of Tonawanda's task force will be made up of three code enforcement officers, tech support, Town Board members, planning and development staff, town and outside legal staff, and possibly police, Hartz said.

"This is pretty big news for people who are burdened by living next to an abandoned property, " Bargnesi said.

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