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City 'back to square one' on sale of vacant Ridge Road lots

The Yemenite group that received City Council approval just two weeks ago to buy six vacant city-owned lots along Ridge Road may not be getting the long sought land after all.

Members of Second Baptist Church reminded Council members Monday that they were in line to purchase the same property nearly a decade ago and should have been made aware that the lots were on the market.

Council President Chuck Jaworski told a standing-room-only crowd of about 75 people inside Council chambers that the Council had erred when it voted unanimously June 6 to sell the lots at $500 apiece to the Yemenite Benevolent Association.

"We were wrong. We didn't follow our own procedure," said Jaworski, noting that the Council failed to check with the city assessor prior to approving the sale.

City Assessor Frank E. Krakowski had requested in a letter that the Council members not sell the lots because the sale could jeopardize future state funding for significant redevelopment along Ridge Road.

First Ward Councilman Abdul Noman sponsored a measure to approve the sale, and it passed by a 5-0 vote.

The Rev. Mark Blue and members of Second Baptist Church, which backs up to the property in question, came out in full force to object to the deal.

The church had won a public bid on some of the same land back in 2002 -- only to be told at that time by the city that the lots shouldn't have been put up for sale.

"We followed the process to the letter," Blue said during a public hearing Monday. "All we want is fairness. We were denied the property because we did the proper things."

The church needs the land to expand its food pantry and senior center, he said.

The Yemenite group has sought to buy property surrounding its hall for more than 30 years and hopes to expand, as well.

"We applied for this land in the '70s and we were rejected," said Mohamed Saleh, director of the Lackawanna mosque.

Former councilwoman and frequent Council critic Andrea Haxton labeled the mix-up a "political-year fiasco."

The Council's measure two weeks ago was not attached to an ordinance, so the sale was not binding, said Jaworski, who hoped to broker a compromise on the lots between the two potential buyers.

But banquet hall owner and operator Mike Lucarelli told Council members they should be opening the sale of the property to developers, rather than nonprofit entities.

"As a large taxpayer, I want to see development on Ridge Road," he said. "We [have] enough nontaxable properties in this city We need businesses."

Jaworski said he favored business development, as well, but after 30 years of the land sitting there vacant, it was time for the city to sell it.

The Council president said he was unaware that Second Baptist had won a bid in 2002 to purchase the land.

"We have to rectify that," he said, adding that the city was "back to square one" on the property.

Jaworski said he planned to host a work-session meeting with the church and the Yemenite group to work out a deal.

"We will work this out in the best interests of the whole community," he said.

In other action, the Council voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance that will require owners of rental units in the city to register their apartments every three years. The measure, modeled after similar legislation adopted in Buffalo, is an effort to crack down on absentee landlords who don't maintain their properties.

Registration fees are $50 for a single-family dwelling; $75 for a two-unit rental dwelling; $100 for a three- or four-unit dwelling; and $200 for a five- or more-unit dwelling.

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