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City Council member Warren Jones
Jax Daily Record Friday, Nov. 14, 201412:00 PM EST

Nonprofits would get first choice on blighted property

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by: Kevin Hogencamp  Contributing Writer

A City Council subcommittee is considering legislation that would require the city to attempt to donate non-historic, city-owned blighted property for rehabilitation before demolishing it.

Federally approved nonprofit community housing organizations such as HabiJax would have first dibs on the property. Private companies and, ultimately, adjacent landowners would then be offered the property, at no cost, if they have a viable development plan.

Also under the legislation, privately owned dilapidated property may be declared blighted – and available for demolition – only if it has unpaid code enforcement, nuisance and demolition liens, and has not had water or electric service for at least 24 months.

The idea behind the proposals and others being contemplated, says council member Warren Jones, is to sharpen the blight arrows in the city’s arsenal.

“The last resort is demolition, which is very costly,” he said.

The land-donation provision and other issues were reviewed Wednesday by the Special Ad Hoc Committee on Jacksonville’s Neighborhood Blight Special Subcommittee on Abandoned Structures. The panel meets again at 2 p.m. Nov. 25 at City Hall.

The subcommittee, chaired by Jones, is clarifying proposed legislation to revise the legal definition of “unsafe building or unsafe structure,” and authorize the demolition of boarded-up, non-historic structures.

HabiJax CEO Mary Kay O’Rourke said Wednesday she supports the changes that streamline the pre-demolition process.

“We do evaluate the homes and if they can be saved, we rehab them. But there are many we would like to demo,” she said.

HabiJax is in the fifth year of spearheading a long-term public-private endeavor to redevelop the New Town neighborhood, 2 miles west of Downtown. About $12 million has been invested in building and rehabilitating structures in the area.

O’Rourke said one boarded-up, dilapidated structure in New Town has been without utility service since 2006. A vacant lot is much more desirable than a dilapidated structure and it allows a new home to be built in its place, she said.

“We have some new homes, some beautiful old homes in nice condition, but there are so many abandoned buildings … that it’s hard to get homeowner to come in an invest in the neighborhood,” she said.

The committee also penciled in a legislative change that would enable the city Planning and Development Department to determine whether abandoned buildings at least 50 years old meet the criteria of being designated as historic structures.

That’s a key consideration because the committee had previously contemplated exempting all property at least 50 years old from demolition consideration, whether the structures are historically designated or not.

Panelists particularly like the idea of giving for-profit developers the opportunity to help solve Jacksonville’s blight problems, but acknowledged that the primary obstacle to blight-abatement –– money –– looms.

“The rub’s the pure economic discussion. It’s a very difficult discussion to have,” said council member Greg Anderson.

Council member Lori Boyer said it’s critical to have economic diversity “to make a neighborhood vital.”

The ordinance maintains the city’s requirement to, when economically feasible, “mothball” historic property before demolishing it.

Mothballing involves closing up buildings, including preventing them from leaking, to protect them from weather and vandalism.

Kimberly Scott, the city’s department of Regulatory Compliance director, asked O’Rourke at the meeting whether HabiJax has asked New Town residents about their sentiments regarding boarded-up homes in the neighborhood.

“They want them gone,” O’Rourke said. “We do engage with residents. They voice concerns. It’s their community.”

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