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Westover to consider land reuse agency to help address problem properties

Officials with the city of Westover want to bring a powerful legislative tool to bear in their efforts to address nuisance properties within the city. 

During Westover City Council’s most recent regular meeting, Public Works Director Jason Stinespring said he’s working with the city’s legal counsel to present the body with an ordinance creating a land reuse agency.  

The creation of LRAs, often called land banks, was made possible by the West Virginia Land Reuse Agency Authorization Act of 2017.  

The formation of the Morgantown Land Reuse and Preservation Agency was finalized in January 2019, making it among the first in the state. 

In Morgantown’s case, the agency’s first action was the purchase of the 12,000 square-foot building at 430 Spruce St., which currently houses city offices during the ongoing city hall renovation project.

The Morgantown LRPA privately financed the acquisition through a 15-year, $1.6 million loan with Community Bank. The agency collects $138,000 annually from the city for use of the space.

Westover City Attorney Tim Stranko is a member of the Morgantown LRPA board. 

“In a nutshell, what that agency does and would do is it would allow us to participate in the real estate marketplace in real time,” he said. 

Stinespring noted the city is in the process of trying to acquire a number of problem properties.  

Once established, he continued, the city’s LRA would have right of first refusal for any property listed in a tax sale that meets any of the following criteria: Has an assessed value of $50,000 or less; has been condemned; has city liens in excess of the amount of back taxes owed; has 24 consecutive months on the city’s vacant property registry; was sold at a tax sale in the previous three years, but not redeemed. 

The only caveat is that if a property is acquired by the agency under the above stipulations, adjoining property owners must be given 120 days to buy the property. 

Once property is obtained, “The LRA basically has the broad authority to dispense of property as it sees fit. It can sell it. It can actually lease it. It can determine the conditions. If we have a property that we want to be developed for commercial, we can just say ‘We’re only going to sell this for commercial purposes.’ There are a lot of advantages to this overall,” Stinespring said. 

Land Reuse Agencies do not have the authority to acquire property through imminent domain. They cannot spend city money without an allocation from council, and cannot acquire property outside city limits. 

If council opts to move forward, it will need to appoint an oversight board of at least five members. Public officers and city employees can serve, but at least one member has to be a resident of the city who participates in a civic organization and is not a city official.

Stranko said the ultimate goal is to simply get languishing properties back on the market. 

“The overall intent is not to participate as investments, but to allow us to clean up these problem properties,” he said. 

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