Suffolk seeks OK on new brownfields land bank

Tom Cilmi, Suffolk County Legislator District 10, poses

Tom Cilmi, Suffolk County Legislator District 10, poses in front of an abandoned piece of property that used to a junkyard over thirty years ago on Grant Avenue in Islip. (Jan. 18, 2013) (Credit: Heather Walsh)

After falling short last year, Suffolk lawmakers are again seeking state permission to create a land bank that could clean and return 124 tax-delinquent, possibly polluted properties to the tax rolls.

If the nonprofit land bank is approved, Suffolk officials say they will have a better chance of selling the brownfields parcels -- including gas stations, auto repair shops, restaurants, dumps and factories -- whose owners failed to pay more than $28 million in taxes in the past two decades.

Municipalities and school districts are compensated by the county for lost tax revenue -- officials could not estimate the amount -- but they are stuck with suspected environmental hazards as the parcels languish. County officials say they cannot legally go on properties to inspect for contamination while the land is in limbo.

"It's a big headache for communities," said county Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), a backer of the bipartisan plan.

The bank, which would be the first of its kind on Long Island, will "get them cleaned up, put them back on the market, get them generating taxes," said county Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville).

The Empire State Development Corp., a state agency, approved five land banks upstate last year, the first year such banks were authorized under a new state law. The ESDC rejected Suffolk's bid but encouraged the county to reapply by Jan. 30.

To buttress Suffolk's case, County Executive Steve Bellone joined the committee steering the bid, and the county's 10 towns were asked to support the plan. Brookhaven, Southold, Huntington, East Hampton, Southampton and Babylon have passed resolutions of support; Shelter Island Supervisor James Dougherty said the town supports the concept, and Smithtown officials will discuss it tonight.

The land bank would "break what is an unproductive and costly cycle," said Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, a member of the county land bank committee. "It's a way to get the costs off the taxpayer and into the private sector while mitigating blight."

The county's efforts to sell tax liens on the tainted parcels have failed as potential buyers balked at steep price tags and the cost of cleaning properties suspected of leaking oil, fuel and other contaminants. Under Suffolk law, the county must receive the full amount of unpaid taxes when it sells liens.

The land bank would seek private and government grants to pay cleanup costs, and the county could turn over tax liens at a reduced rate to the land bank, which could foreclose on the properties without making the county liable, supporters say.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the bank would be "a giant step forward."

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