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County looking for ways to clear out blighted areas

For some time one of the most visible faces in the war to rid the county of the eyesore of abandoned buildings has been the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization as it taps into Community Development Block Grants to take down the structures.

Their tool is the voluntary agreement where the property owner signs a demolition agreement allowing the CAO to tear down the house or business in question.

However about a month ago Operation TLC, an eastern-end grass-roots volunteer cleanup organization, threw its hat into the fray as it organized a meeting with township trustees and county officeholders to explore other options.

From that came a brainstorming session Tuesday morning in commission chambers where Commission President Bill Pratt, Ralph Kline and Cindy Anderson from the CAO, County Treasurer Stephen Burcham, County Prosecutor Brigham Anderson and Ironton businessman James Kratzenberg discussed which of the possible tools to clean up the problem would work the most effectively.

The three avenues discussed were the much-used voluntary agreement, condemnation and tax foreclosure.

“The biggest challenge (with the voluntary agreement) is to get the property to the place where you can tear it down,” Kline told the group. “You have to identify the property owner and get him to sign off as a voluntary agreement and (find out) how many liens are against it.”

There can be a single parcel with multiple owners where all but one are willing to sign the demolition agreement.

Because of that scenario the ad hoc group considered the process of condemnation.

“Municipalities and trustees have that authority (to condemn a structure),” County Prosecutor Brigham Anderson said. “They can go about condemning that property.”

However Anderson was uncertain if the county commissioners had that authority and would provide them with an opinion upon request.

The third method is a tax foreclosure and one that Burcham has offered to Operation TLC where he would sell the tax liens on the blighted parcels for $1 each.

“You wait for a year before going to foreclosure,” Burcham said. “Then an attorney files the action and you have to pay the next year’s taxes.”

Then the property has to be put on a sheriff’s sale twice and if there are no bidders the title is issued to the tax lien holder.

“They can do anything they want to,” Burcham said.

The sale price for the property would include back taxes, attorney fees and other costs the tax lien holder has invested. Any money above those charges would go to the property owner. But if that person cannot be found the money would go into the county’s unclaimed funds. There it would stay for five years and then go into the general fund.

“It is important for the county to remove these slum and blighted places to increase surrounding property values and get them back on the tax rolls,” Pratt said after the meeting. “It makes our county more attractive to business and those who might want to live here. The voluntary agreement is the easiest route. Unfortunately condemnation is not the cheaper route. Voluntary agreement is the key to everything to make it happen in a hurry.”