2010-06-12 / News

Free demolition program rewards delinquency

By Charles Prince and Scott Rawdon

BUCKEYE LAKE – Property tax scofflaws appear to be the primary beneficiaries of Buckeye Lake’s program to remove dilapidated structures.

So far, seventy-six percent of the property owners who allowed their structures to deteriorate to the point of no repair have also failed to pay all their property taxes. Yet, with one exception to date, these property owners will soon own a completely cleared lot courtesy of taxpayers who do pay their taxes.

The program is funded by a $1,062,074 Neighborhood Stabilization Program grant awarded to Licking County in December 2008. The federal funds may be used to improve neighborhoods by purchasing and redeveloping abandoned and foreclosed properties, establishing land banks and demolishing blighted structures. Licking County opted to earmark $400,000 to demolish dilapidated structures throughout the county except with in the City of Newark

A Beacon investigation has found that the property owners for 13 of the 17 properties demolished or currently on track to be removed owe back property taxes. One of the four properties not currently owing back property taxes had its substantial arrearage wiped out when ownership was turned over to the village. The current owners will retain ownership of the other 16 properties.

The other three properties current on tax payments are owned by parties with substantial resources who could afford to remove the structures themselves, without using the county’s limited federal grant money to do so.

Buckeye Lake Planning Commission chair Karen Cookston owns two of the three properties. Federal grant money will be paying $17,400 to remove her structures at 145 and 161 Anchors Way. The cost to remove her two structures alone accounts for 4.4 percent of the total earmarked for demolition county-wide. Licking County’s OnTrac system shows that Cookston owns 18 separate parcels, including several multilot parcels.

Peter G. Eikenberry et al. is the other substantial owner. OnTrac lists 51 parcels for Eikenberry, including 23 lots and nearly 50 acres of land. The project to remove a structure at 10727 Mill Dam Road has not yet been bid.

Cookston’s and Eikenberry et al.’s participation in the Neighborhood Stabilization Program meets minimum program standards. There are no income limitations for property owners, according to Warren Weber, Community Development Manager with the Licking County Planning Commission. The only income guidelines applicable require the structure to be located within a census tract or census block group that is at least 50 percent low-moderate-medium income (LMMI), according to Beth Jones, Community Development Specialist with the Licking County Planning Commission. LMMI is defined as being 120 percent of area median income or below. All three properties meet that requirement.

The Buckeye Lake Park Company owns seven of the 13 properties with unpaid back taxes. Six different parties own the remaining six properties.

Demolition contracts have been awarded for eight of the 17 properties. They range from a low of $3,360 for Denise Delagrange’s structure at 11144 Hebron Road to $11,575 for Bradley G. and Barbara L. Milush’s structure at 73 Elliot. Bids have been increasing as more structures have been released for bid, according to Weber. The average cost for the first eight demolitions is $6,541.

Unpaid back taxes on the first eight projects awarded total $7,034.80 for the five non-current property owners. None of the seven Buckeye Lake Park Company projects have been let to bid. The park company’s unpaid property taxes total $6,936 or an average of $991 per property. A review of other Buckeye Lake Park Company property shows tens of thousands of unpaid property taxes.

If the park company’s seven projects cost the current average of $6,541 – unlikely according to Weber’s observations – they will account for a whopping 11 percent of the demolition funds available county-wide.

The unpaid taxes are owed to Lakewood Schools; the Village of Buckeye Lake for fire and police protection and operations; Licking County; county-wide services; Union Township; and include the $10 per month Buckeye Lake preassessment for water.

The Beacon asked Buckeye Lake Mayor Rick Baker to comment on the program.

“This is a great thing for the community,” said Baker. “Whatever it takes to get these junk properties down, let’s get them down.” His primary purpose for running for mayor was to rid the village of derelict houses.

Baker believes the free demolitions may get the back taxes paid earlier. Owners will now have more marketable lots which he believes can be sold sooner with the back taxes recovered more quickly.

Baker said the funding is administered through the county, which has no guidelines for the property owner’s income, other than the property being within an area of low to moderate income. He said they’ve been approaching the property owners in a “diplomatic way,” saying, “Here’s the money. May we demolish the house?” There may be a day, however, when the village will force demolition when there’s a health issue. “In the future we may have to say there’s a violation,” he said.

“I’m happy with the progress,” said Baker, who understands the process takes time. Trying to find the homeowners has been a challenge.

Baker said the village must tell the county which houses it wants demolished by mid-June, and the funding ends June 30. “We’re looking at 70 or so houses,” said

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