July 18, 2013

Land bank may help with ‘Carpet Capital Makeover’

Charles Oliver

— Look around Dalton and you’ll find them. Properties that have been abandoned by their owners. If they aren’t run down, they are on that path.

Often, the back taxes and penalties on those properties exceed what they’d bring on the market, and even if they don’t, prospective buyers can’t find an owner to sell them.

“What we want to do is to bring those properties back into the market and get them generating taxes again,” said Dalton City Administrator Ty Ross.

The Dalton-Whitfield Land Bank Authority is the tool officials plan to use to bring those properties back into the market. The land bank has been around for about five years, but a law passed by the General Assembly in 2012 gives land banks more flexibility than they had before, if officials choose to exercise it.

Ross explained that the new law allows land banks to include more than one city and county, so members could conceivably invite some of the other cities in Whitfield County to take part. They could also see if Murray County officials want to take part.

It also gives land banks a new source of funding, allowing them to keep up to 75 percent of taxes generated by any properties they sell for up to five years.

Land bank authority members expressed an interest in making such changes, and Chairman Gary Crews, who is a member of the Dalton City Council, asked Ross and County Administrator Mark Gibson to draft a proposal for members to consider in six to eight weeks.

Land banks do not have the power of eminent domain. They cannot condemn and take properties, and the changes in the law do not give them that power. But they can accept donations of property from other governments or from private citizens and organizations.

Ross said when individuals or organizations donate property to local governments those governments become responsible for paying the latest taxes on those properties. The land bank does not. The land bank can also waive back taxes on property donated to it.

Land bank board member Lynn Laughter, a member of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners, said she does not want the land bank to become a vehicle for property owners to avoid paying taxes.

Whitfield County Tax Commissioner Danny Sane said that his office collects all the taxes it can, but in some cases that is simply impossible.

Dalton officials have taken a greater interest in the land bank during the past year as part of their Carpet Capital Makeover plan, which aims to remove blighted properties and to keep other properties from becoming nuisances. That plan also involves a greater emphasis on code enforcement, and the Dalton Police Department added an officer earlier this year whose primary duty is enforcing the city’s building code.

Ross said it is easier for the land bank to sell property than it is for local governments, since it has few legal requirements to meet, so it can move properties donated to it back onto the market more quickly than governments can.

Crews said that though he hopes the land bank will become more active it will not be in competition with local developers and realtors.

“We want to be business friendly, entrepreneur friendly and community friendly,” he said. “The properties we will be dealing with are not in the market.”