Deal reached on Phila.'s stalled land bank bill

Posted: December 06, 2013

PHILADELPHIA Hours before the second-to-last City Council meeting of the year, a deal was struck Wednesday that appears to clear the way for creation of a Philadelphia land bank - albeit not quite the streamlined model its strongest advocates had wanted.

If the land bank bill passes as amended, as appears likely, the city would become the largest in the nation with such a bank - a system for the sale of vacant or tax-delinquent properties that makes it easier to turn them into tax-producing townhouses, community gardens, or affordable-housing projects.

But in the deal reached Wednesday with Council President Darrell L. Clarke, the bill's supporters, including its primary sponsor, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, had to give in to some of Clarke's demands for more councilmanic sign-offs in the process of converting vacant land.

"There are so many other things to be worked out," Quiñones Sánchez said. "While this isn't my preference . . . it's not the be-all, end-all."

On Thursday, amendments will be introduced that would add and delete key language in the bill, introduced in Council in October to establish a uniform system for acquiring and disposing of the more than 9,000 city-owned vacant properties. The land bank would also be able to acquire the thousands of vacant tax-delinquent properties and use them, along with the city-owned vacant lots, to assemble large parcels for redevelopment.

The deal includes:

Keeping the Vacant Property Review Committee (VPRC), a 40-year-old Council advisory panel that holds monthly hearings on land transfers, as part of the approval process when the land bank sells a property.

Requiring that any lien discharges by the land bank be approved by the city finance director.

Stating that an annual strategic plan for the bank, including any efforts to acquire tax-delinquent land, must get Council's OK each year.

Having Council sign off on the land bank's spending decisions.

Council is expected to approve the amendments Thursday, setting the stage for the bill's final passage at the chamber's last scheduled meeting of the year, next Thursday.

Mayor Nutter "has been very interested in the notion of a land bank from very early on, predating any introduction of any legislation," spokesman Mark McDonald said Wednesday, adding that he had not seen the latest amendments. "We're hopeful parties will work out a reasonable, streamlined system."

A disagreement between Clarke and Quiñones Sánchez over his insistence on including the VPRC and other Council hurdles in the land bank process stalled the bill in recent weeks.

Clarke's version would legislate more Council input throughout the land-disposition process, while Quiñones Sánchez and other land bank supporters wanted fewer steps involving Council.

On Tuesday, Clarke's special assistant, Donna J. Bullock, sent an e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by The Inquirer, to some community leaders. "The proposed legislation delegates a massive amount of power to the Land Bank Board without any checks and balances," the e-mail read, arguing against taking the VPRC out of the equation.

Bullock is Clarke's designee on the VPRC board, according to a list provided by the city. The VPRC does not list its members or agendas online. That is expected to change with the land bank bill.

The trade-off for keeping the VPRC in the bill was adding transparency to the workings of that committee, said Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations and a land bank supporter.

"We realized to get this done, we had to compromise," Sauer said, adding that Clarke pushed his VPRC point by saying an open forum was needed to discuss all land bank projects. "There were other ways it could've been addressed, but that [VPRC] was important to the Council president."

Clarke backed down from his call for requiring written consent from district Council members for each parcel the land bank acquires. In the amended version, councilmanic approval for land acquisitions will come via the strategic plan that needs Council's annual OK, said the chamber's lawyer, John Christmas.

If amendments to the bill are not introduced Thursday, it would have to wait until the Council's spring term - when supporters fear it will get lost in the budget hearings and the school funding crisis.

Anne Fadullon, vice president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia, said, "We were all in the mood to compromise, and we all sort of got some and we gave some, and we got land bank and that's what we wanted."

"It's a historic moment," Quiñones Sánchez said late Wednesday, noting that she had worked on the effort for six years. "The legislation is the first part of what will be a long process."


cvargas@phillynews.com

215-854-5520 @InqCVargas

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