It’s easy to criticize government for ineffective and uninspired solutions to difficult situations. We do it all the time, and we should. Yet, it’s just as important to celebrate fresh, creative approaches to intractable problems.
Suffolk County’s new land bank program is one such innovation. It’s the only land bank in the state focused on redeveloping polluted properties, and though it’s in its infancy, it shows enormous promise.
The basic idea is for the county to take title to blighted properties whose owners have stopped paying taxes, and sell the tax liens to developers. The developers pay the cost of cleaning the properties and then build on them, returning them to the tax rolls. The county gets new revenue with no financial risk, developers get properties at reduced prices, brownfields get cleaned, communities get revitalized and jobs are created. That’s a lot of wins. And the county has started a similar program that rehabs and resells zombie homes for affordable housing.
Suffolk has identified 133 blighted properties that owed $35 million in back taxes. Some were delinquent for more than 20 years. The county recently sold its first four properties under the land bank program, including a notorious landfill in Kings Park that will cost its new owners $10 million to clean up before they convert it to a solar farm. Delinquent property owners are taking notice. Faced with the threat of having their parcels seized by the land bank, more than 40 such owners got the message and paid their bills in full — nearly $5 million in back taxes.
One way to measure the program’s success is its bipartisan support among county legislators and the interest it has attracted from other municipalities seeking to replicate it. In other words: Bravo.
— The editorial board