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Forest Park joins Clayton County land bank effort

Program is an attempt to turn properties with unpaid taxes into tax generators

FOREST PARK — Officials from Forest Park are teaming up with Clayton County leaders to make troubled properties that are far behind on their property taxes more attractive to developers.

The city council voted unanimously Monday to join the county’s land bank, which is a new effort created by county commissioners this month. The idea behind the land bank is that it will acquire properties where the back taxes are so high and the property is in such bad shape that investors won’t buy them when they are auctioned on the courthouse steps, said city and land bank officials.

“The land bank is not a silver bullet, but it’s one more bullet that we have in our arsenal,” said Forest Park Mayor David Lockhart.

At this point, the county and Forest Park are the only government bodies which have members on the Land Bank Board because they are the only groups which have agreed to join it. Land bank attorney Travis Smith said he believes there are talks with the other six cities in Clayton County about eventually joining the group.

The make-up of the five-member Land Bank Board includes three county appointees and two Forest Park appointees. The county’s appointees are Lake Spivey area resident Dave Murphy and Jonesboro residents Latrevia Kates and Latrice Mitchell. Forest Park’s appointees are Planning and Zoning Director Al Wiggins and soon-to-be-former Forest Park/Fort Gillem Implementation Local Redevelopment Authority Chairman John Westervelt.

Smith said the Land Bank Board will “acquire” properties essentially by forgiving the unpaid taxes and then try to recoup as much of the unpaid taxes as possible by selling the properties to interested developers. Once the land bank acquires these properties, however, it will be responsible for maintaining them until they are sold, Smith explained.

“The land bank is the only legal entity that can basically hit a big reset button,” Smith said. “The land bank has the ability to extinguish the back taxes and then sell it for whatever we can get on it.”

He later added that the county will be happy with whatever money the land bank can get for the properties because officials have so far “been getting a goose egg” since owners have not complied with their tax obligations.

There are some properties that are already being considered prime targets for the Land Bank Board to take on, including a partially-burned down apartment complex at the corner of Battle Creek and Valley Hill roads where the owner owes $300,000 in unpaid property taxes. Another location, which Smith said was a partial catalyst for the board’s creation, is a boarded-up apartment complex at 890 Conley Road.

There are approximately $150,000-$180,000 in back taxes owed on the property and it has been an issue of concern for area officials, including Commissioner Sonna Singleton, Smith said. The property is called Briarwood Apartments, but it’s boarded up and grass and weeds are growing up around it.

That has invited some derisive names, he said.

“Somebody had a really good name for it — Kudzu Acres,” Smith said.

The Conley Road property, Smith said, presented unique challenges because it was a condo conversion where warranty deeds for condo units were sold to about 30 people, but the conversions never took place. As a result, it created a complex situation where there are dozens of warranty deeds for condos, but Smith said the county sends one tax bill for the entire property since the conversions never took place.

“They basically got away with selling these things and then not paying the taxes on them,” said Smith.

Smith explained the county had been approached by investors willing to buy the property and clean it up, but the county was not in a position to sell it because of the high number of people who would have to be contacted in advance and the complexity of trying to decide who might ultimately be responsible through traditional means.

“If we were to try and do a non-judicial tax foreclosure like we’ve done for 20-something years in the county, I can guarantee we will get sued for it,” he said.

However, Smith said the legislature made some changes to land bank laws in 2012 to fit the mortgage crisis that has faced the state and the nation in recent years. One of those changes, he said, was the creation of a new option for deciding to whom unpaid property taxes should be accessed. That new option — known as judicial foreclosure — leaves it up to a Superior Court judge to decide who is the responsible party.

That will make it easier to turn the Conley Road property around and make it marketable again, said Smith.

After officials explained the concept at Forest Park’s council work session, resident Sandra Griffin said she supported the concept. Griffin said she lives on the unincorporated outskirts of Forest Park, but she added that what affects the city affects the residents who live just beyond its borders.

One condition Griffin said she would like to see in place is that whatever goes on the acquired properties be beneficial to the community and neighboring property values.

“If they come up with an idea that can get the properties in, and get them cleaned up and get some new properties built in the community that will uplift the community, then I’m all for it,” she said.