Land bank to reply to harsh criticism


At their last meeting, members of the Kent County Land Bank Authority talked about how to respond to what they consider to be unfounded and inaccurate attacks aimed at them and county commissioners, and whether to continue to develop a three-year strategic plan or wait until a county panel files its report next spring.

Both matters are related.

The Kent County Land Bank Process Subcommittee is looking into how KCLBA selects its properties for redevelopment prior to the county’s annual public auction of tax-foreclosed properties, a method that drew criticism from some real estate agents and several county commissioners. They accused the land bank in August of “cherry picking” a few of the more attractive properties on the foreclosure list, which they said interferes with private-sector sales.

Still, in July, county commissioners approved the list of properties the land bank wanted to buy from the county. Commission Chairwoman Sandi Frost Parrish named four board members to the process subcommittee in August. “It will not look at the land bank.” she said then. At the subcommittee’s next meeting, members reviewed the state law that governs the disposition of tax-foreclosed properties.

KCLBA Executive Director Dave Allen asked his board members if he and the agency’s advisory council should continue developing the land bank’s strategic plan or wait until the subcommittee files its report, which is expected to come in March. Allen said the report could affect the strategic plan and cause it to be rewritten or amended.

KCLBA board member Sharon Brinks, also a Kentwood city commissioner, felt Allen should hold off any further work on it. “I can’t see you moving forward with it until the county decides,” she said.

But board members George Meek, supervisor of Plainfield Township, and Stan Ponstein, a Kent County commissioner, felt otherwise. Meek said the land bank should be proactive and not wait for the county.

Ponstein agreed. “I don’t know what the county commission is going to do, but anything the county does will be a tweak.”

Board member Rosalynn Bliss, a Grand Rapids city commissioner, said she has spoken with a number of county commissioners, and those talks have led her to believe that they wouldn’t change their minds about the land bank. So work on developing the strategic plan will continue.

As for the critical comments leveled at board members, they decided a public response was necessary. “They’ve got their minds made up that we’re cherry picking and these are (coming from) brokers. Many of the people that are attacking us are using hearsay,” said Meek.

“I’ve gotten those, too,” said County Treasurer Kenneth Parrish, also chairman of the KCLBA.

Allen said he will start addressing some of the “factual inaccuracies” as part of a public relations effort on behalf of the land bank.

Brinks said the “fallacies” that have been thrown at them need to be cleared up. “We need to have an honest and open discussion on this,” she said.

“They have no love for us, either. But their direct assault is on the county commission for allowing us to select properties,” said Parrish.

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance has promised to oppose the election next month of any county commissioner who allowed the land bank to buy the tax-foreclosed properties.

Parrish explained that the county’s counsel said Kent’s policy regarding land possession doesn’t have a bearing on the land bank’s land-acquisition activities because the authority is chartered under state law and follows state law in its disposition of foreclosed properties.

“It’s easy to get your back up with the way we’ve been approached by some,” said Brinks. But she added they need to talk more about the land bank because they may not have communicated their message perfectly.

Bliss said she attended a land-bank conference two years ago and heard how other authorities struggled to get the word out. She suggested that they contact other land banks to learn how they handled the communications issue. “That information is far more relevant today than it was two years ago,” she said.

Ponstein added that he has received mixed signals from the area’s real estate organizations. Some have told him they support the land bank and what it is trying to accomplish, while others have said they don’t.

“Perhaps we should get associate memberships in CAR, GRAR and the home builders association. It’s a continuing effort to explain what we do,” said Parrish.

Meek said they need to reach out to the agents because they believe the land bank is costing them sales commissions. Allen said he would begin putting together a PR plan.

KCLBA bought 43 tax-foreclosed properties from the county in July for $420,400 and sold 19 residences to nonprofit developers, who are required to renovate the houses.

Allen said the land bank recently sold four houses in Grand Rapids and one in Wyoming, is close to closing on another sale, and has accepted a purchase agreement for a property in Gaines Township that should close by the end of the month. He said a majority of the buyers are builders who are renovating houses they intend to sell to their children. Allen also said the land bank is not discounting the prices of the properties it sells and is charging the appraised value.

“The market is hot right now,” he said of the land bank’s property inventory. “So from a production schedule, we’re doing quite well.”

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