City OKs land bank concept

At a work session Monday, a majority of City Council members declared themselves receptive to designating the Altoona Redevelopment Authority as a land bank.

An ordinance to make it so could be introduced at council’s next meeting Sept. 12.

Creation of a land bank has been discussed by the Redevelopment Authority for years, but only recently has state law allowed redevelopment authorities themselves to become land banks — although the law requires that they keep their regular functions and their land bank functions separate.

A land bank can help prevent or eliminate blight by intercepting properties headed for judicial tax sale before they’re available at open auction, where they’re susceptible to purchase by irresponsible or incapable buyers who sometimes let them sit and deteriorate further, officials have said.

Land banks need approval from the other property taxing bodies involved — Blair County and the Altoona Area School District — and generally sign blanket agreements with those for any properties it acquires, officials have said.

Those agreements may call for discharging current tax revenues to which those taxing bodies are entitled and for sharing of future tax revenues with the land bank.

The law allows a land bank to take 50 percent of tax revenues for five years for properties it conveys — revenues that help fund land bank operations, along with revenue from the sale of those conveyed properties.

Land banks usually require money from municipal subsidies or foundations to begin operations until the revenue begins flowing, officials have said.

A land bank can negotiate prices for option agreements with the tax claim bureau on properties that it wants, then it can convey those properties to qualified developers, officials have said.

Land banks generally compile a list of such qualified developers, officials said.

They can give those properties away if they want, according to Winnie Branton, a Philadelphia consultant who has been working with the city’s Blight Task Force and its followup, Blight Action Team, in answer to a question from Councilman Bruce Kelley.

The plan for Altoona’s land bank is not to acquire properties on speculation but only when a developer is prepared to receive them to avoid the cost and liability of property maintenance, said Mayor Matt Pacifico, a longtime champion of the land bank idea.

A land bank would be required to adopt policies that govern its operations within the areas where there is flexibility, Branton said.

Eliminating a land bank if a municipality changes its mind about having one would require a recommendation to the governing body from two-thirds of the land bank board members, according to Branton in answer to a question from Councilman Dave Butterbaugh.

However, municipalities that no longer want their land banks can simply refuse to provide financial support, Branton said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.