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Erie and Chautauqua counties to get state land bank

A tool many believe will help deal with abandoned and distressed properties and cut out speculators is coming to Erie and Chautauqua counties.

The Empire State Development Corp. on Thursday approved a joint application from Erie County and the cities of Buffalo, Lackawanna and Tonawanda, as well as one from Chautauqua County, giving the area the ability to start two of the state's first land banks.

Proponents have touted land banks as a way to deal with vacant properties on a regional basis and with a coordinated strategy.

Their creation "will truly have a transformational impact on our struggling upstate cities," said Sam Hoyt, regional president for Empire State Development, who as an assemblyman sponsored the bill that allowed for land banks.

Thursday's vote allows for the creation of the Buffalo Erie Niagara Land Improvement Corp., a nonprofit organization with the power to own and dispose of property, as well as maintain the properties it does own. A land bank can bid on properties at tax foreclosure auctions and would automatically win the auction if it bids the amount equal to what's owed in back taxes and fees on the property.

The Erie County land bank, which will not have eminent domain powers, would be able to deal with properties in the county's 25 towns and 16 villages, as well as the three cities.

In-kind services provided by member municipalities will likely make up much of the organization's initial assets.

The organization will have an 11-member board of directors, including five from the City of Buffalo: Brendan Mehaffy, executive director of the Office of Strategic Planning; Timothy A. Ball, corporation counsel; James W. Comerford Jr., commissioner of permits and inspections; Janet Penksa, finance commissioner; and David Comerford, general manager of the Buffalo Sewer Authority.

Three members come from county government: Maria R. Whyte, commissioner of the Department of Environment and Planning; Joseph L. Maciejewski, director of real property tax services; and County Attorney Michael A. Siragusa.

Lackawanna Assessor Frank E. Krakowski, Tonawanda City Treasurer Joseph M. Hogenkamp and Christina Orsi, Western New York regional director of Empire State Development, round out the board's membership.

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown and Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz, along with other government officials, held an early-afternoon news conference on the steps of City Hall to praise the approval.

Poloncarz, who called the move "just the start of the process," said the entity will have to be incorporated and apply for non-profit status with the IRS.

The organization's board will begin meeting in the meantime, said Mehaffy, the city's planning chief.

Whyte, the county's lead planner, said it would likely take about six to eight weeks before the entity is ready to formally begin its work.

The City of Buffalo's problem with vacant property is well known, but the issue stretches to other cities, first-ring suburbs and some rural towns, Hoyt has said.

As of a year ago, the city had about 95,000 vacant parcels, with about 6,600 that were city-owned, according to its Office of Strategic Planning.

The land bank would not try to take ownership of a property that the host municipality does not want it to acquire, Whyte has said.

The state said it would be approving up to five land bank applications this year.

Because a limited number of approvals were available, local officials expected to have a better chance of obtaining approval if multiple local governments collaborated on one application.

"This is huge news for our community," Brown said.

The joint application, which was submitted at the end of March, almost did not happen, as talks between the city and county broke down at one point earlier this year.

The state also approved three other land banks: Syracuse and Onondaga County; the City of Newburgh; and Schenectady County and the cities of Schenectady and Amsterdam.

It rejected applications from Suffolk County and Broome County.