City Council approves long-awaited city land-bank bill

Posted: December 14, 2013

City Council on Thursday unanimously approved the long-awaited land-bank bill, and Mayor Nutter promptly vowed to sign it - clearing the way for Philadelphia to become the largest city in the country with a land bank.

The goal of the bank is to cut through City Hall red tape and create a comprehensive system for confronting blight by turning vacant and tax-delinquent parcels into tax-producing properties.

Thursday's vote was something of a formality, since the tough part of agreeing on the bill's amendments was hashed out last week between its primary sponsor, Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez, and Council President Darrell L. Clarke.

The legislation is only the start of what will be a lot of decision-making on how the land bank is to operate.

Nevertheless, the green light to create such a bank in Philadelphia - where the city is responsible for nearly a quarter of the 40,000 vacant properties - was cause for celebration for land-bank advocates.

"It's a huge step forward in addressing vacant property issues in the city," said Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations.

The land bank will likely take at least a year to be fully implemented. A budget and a staff need to be approved by next summer, and policies and procedures for how both the staff and the bank's board will operate, along with a strategic plan, will need to be developed and approved by Council.

"Now the ball is in the administration's court to resource and appropriately staff it," Quiñones Sánchez, who has championed the land-bank idea for five years, said after the bill passed.

Nutter's spokesman, Mark McDonald, said the mayor was committed to funding the land-bank staff and whatever else is required to move the plan forward.

Nutter had been advocating for a land bank since his first term as mayor, when he launched a task force to look into the issue of vacant properties.

"While not perfect in every regard . . . it's clearly a step forward," McDonald said.

Though Quiñones Sánchez, who served on the mayor's vacant property task force, had worked on the latest land-bank bill for three years, it wasn't until early fall that the bill picked up momentum and was put up for a vote in the Council Committee on Public Property.

That was where things got heated - over provisions of the bill dealing with the various approval steps involved in acquiring and disposing of property.

Clarke insisted on legislating more Council approvals and sign-offs throughout the land-disposition process, while Quiñones Sánchez and other land-bank supporters wanted fewer steps involving Council.

Ultimately, Quiñones Sánchez and the main advocacy group, the Land Bank Alliance, agreed to the inclusion of an oft-criticized Council advisory board, the Vacant Property Review Committee, with some of Clarke's other amendments in order to get the bill passed.

"Very happy that Philadelphia has made history by creating the largest land bank in the country," Quiñones Sánchez said after the bill passed unanimously.

Some of the legislators who helped enact the state law that allowed Philadelphia to create a land bank remained skeptical Thursday of the process the city was crafting.

State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.), who helped round up Democratic support for the Republican-sponsored state land-bank bill, expressed disappointment.

"I'm going to be hopeful and optimistic," Thomas said. "But on its face, a two- or three-tier process is not going to result in a streamlined process."


Cvargas@Phillynews.com

215-854-5520

@InqCVargas

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