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Clarke seeks review of city land sales

City Council President Darrell L. Clarke plans to ask Thursday for a review of the city's process for selling vacant tax-delinquent land, following the sale of dozens of properties that were supposed to go to the Land Bank.

Clarke will introduce a resolution calling for a hearing on the matter on the first day back for  Council this year.

"We've got to get on the same page, and tomorrow we'll be calling for hearings to talk about our approach and whether or not we're going to work on this together or whether there will be some sort of adversarial relationship," Clarke said Wednesday.

In a sharply worded column in Monday's Inquirer, Clarke accused the Revenue Department of selling properties without consulting the Land Bank,  a quasi-government entity created more than two years ago with the goal of being a one-stop shop for purchasing vacant properties.

"My office requested that 260 vacant tax-delinquent properties in the Fifth District be held for review by the Land Bank. Instead, the Revenue Department sent 113 parcels directly to auction, bypassing Land Bank review for strategic or community-oriented reuse," Clarke wrote. "In some cases, the Land Bank had already reviewed and identified parcels for affordable housing, workforce housing, or green space."

One of the key abilities of the Land Bank is to bundle properties for redevelopment or green space, such as a community garden. For example, the Land Bank could acquire a few privately owned tax-delinquent parcels that are adjacent to publicly owned lots and package them for a larger project.

In the column, Clarke said he would introduce a resolution calling for a moratorium on lien and sheriff's sales of vacant tax-delinquent land and a review of Revenue Department and Office of Property Assessment procedures. But on Wednesday, Clarke said he would start with the resolution for hearings.

Last week, the Land Bank Board approved its 2017 Strategic Plan, which includes plans to acquire 325 privately owned tax-delinquent properties and 1,392 publicly owned vacant properties in fiscal 2018. The plan, which is up for Council review Thursday, suggests that the Land Bank sell 325 properties in 2018.

The process would speed up slightly in years to come. At the current pace, it would take the Land Bank 55 years to sell the 20,000 vacant and tax-delinquent properties currently scattered throughout the city.

As the Land Bank prepared its strategic plan, it compiled a wish list of properties to acquire in the coming year. The first round of 299 properties was sent to the Revenue Department on Dec. 15 for review.

"We submitted the ones that we saw an opportunity for the Land Bank to acquire," Tania Nikolic, interim executive director of the Land Bank, said. Revenue was to check the properties for outstanding liens, private and public, and make recommendations to the Land Bank on which properties could move forward,  she said.

Clarke spokeswoman Jane Roh said in December that the Revenue Department sent 21 properties in Clarke's district that had been targeted for Land Bank acquisition to sheriff's sale.

Paul Chrystie, spokesman for the Land Bank, said the sale of those properties was a result of miscommunication between the Revenue Department and the Land Bank.

"These miscommunications are rare, and we regret the error," Chrystie said in an email.  "But please keep in mind that the sale of those 21 properties brought in more than $356,000, resulting in needed revenues for the city and School District."

Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, who was the lead sponsor in the legislation that created the Land Bank, said she agrees with Clarke's opinion that the Revenue Department is hampering the process.

"If everything stays the same, you have the Revenue Department – because it is being pressed to collect money – dictating community development and strategies in the neighborhood, which I don't think they should be doing. And that's my biggest issue," Quiñones-Sánchez said.

City spokesman Mike Dunn said the process is collaborative with input from the administration and the Land Bank to determine terms for acquisition.

Anne Fadullon, director of planning and development for the city, said she welcomed the opportunity for hearings to review how the city deals with privately owned tax-delinquent properties up for Land Bank acquisition. She said the city has no plans to stop sales in the meantime.

The Revenue Department is reviewing proposals for various models of lien sales from multiple vendors and a selection is expected next month.