Bill for Philly land bank stuck in tug-of-war

" His amendments are deal-breakers. I'm at the five-yard line. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez
" His amendments are deal-breakers. I'm at the five-yard line. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez

Advisory panel proves problematic for some of plan's supporters.

Posted: November 21, 2013

PHILADELPHIA As City Council's 2013 calendar nears its end, the bill that was supposed to create a land bank to dispose of Philadelphia's bloated inventory of abandoned and vacant properties is caught in a tug-of-war.

The fight between land bank supporters and some forces on Council seems to be boiling down to two words: shall and may.

In the amended version of the land bank bill that its primary sponsor, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, plans to introduce Thursday, may replaces shall.

And if that version doesn't fly, the bill may be doomed for the year. After Thursday's meeting, Council only has two meetings left in December.

It's no secret that the existing process for dealing with the 40,000 vacant and abandoned properties littering the city with blight needs an overhaul. The idea of a land bank is to streamline the acquisition of vacant property - whether by a developer who wants to build condos, or a neighborhood group that wants to plant a garden.

But some land bank supporters think the proposal still contains too much red tape: a person who wants a vacant city lot would need an OK from the land bank's board, plus a Council resolution - and a green light from a Council advisory panel.

That last step was supposed to be dropped from the bill. But during a committee hearing, Council President Darrell L. Clarke inserted the 40-year-old advisory board, the Vacant Property Review Committee - known as the VPRC - back into the bill.

Clarke's move caught many by surprise, including Quiñones Sánchez. She has fought for years to get a land bank and feels the goal line is near.

"His amendments are deal-breakers," Quiñones Sánchez said Tuesday. "I'm at the five-yard line."

Her latest amended version allows Council members, as she put it, to "opt in or opt out." If a land bank decision involves land in their district, they can insist on sending that decision to the VPRC - or not.

"My colleagues want to see us go through a process that is simplified," Quiñones Sánchez said.

She plans to canvass Council on Wednesday to try to gather support for her amended bill.

Attempts to reach Clarke late Tuesday for comment were unsuccessful. He has called the VPRC the "most transparent" step in the process, in which the public and officials are at the same table to make a decision on acquisition or use of land.

The VPRC meets monthly in the Council caucus room - dimly lit and with bad acoustics. Members sit around a table and call on people who represent the properties on the agenda.

That agenda is nowhere to be found online, and people who attend are usually those invited by the staff at the city's housing office because the property they want will be up for discussion, said office spokesman Paul Chrystie. Typically, those who get a hearing before the VPRC have received a blessing for their project from their district Council member.

"It's not always easy for someone who is not politically savvy," said Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia who has worked with urban farmers to acquire properties through the VPRC. "Not everyone knows how to work the system."

Land bank advocates see the VPRC step as needlessly duplicating what the land bank board would do: allow Council- and administration-appointed officials to weigh in.

The bank's board would be named in part by the mayor and in part by Council; some members would have to be from community groups. Quiñones Sánchez said the list of people to serve on an initial board would not be ready until Council's Dec. 5 meeting - leaving the Dec. 12 meeting as the last chance to get the bill enacted this year.

If the bill waits till spring, it could get bogged down by budget hearings.

State Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.), sponsor of the state bill that enabled Philadelphia to create a land bank, has said he was disappointed the bank isn't open yet, and sorry the proposal now includes the VPRC. "The less hands, the better," he said.

On Tuesday, the Land Bank Alliance, which includes nonprofits, Realtors, and others, held a phone conference to lobby for prompt passage. The group also argued for taking the VPRC out of the picture.

Contacted Tuesday evening, Rick Sauer, who heads the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations and often speaks for the alliance, said he had not seen the wording of Quiñones Sanchez's latest version but thought it an improvement on the current bill.

"If we can't get VPRC out for everyone, but we can get it out for some," he said, "then that's better."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-815-1953 @InqCVargas

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