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Springfield program cuts costs, number of vacant lots

A sweat equity program introduced by the city of Springfield last year could lead to nearly 10 percent of its vacant lots put back into productive use by property owners by the end of 2016.

More than 20 property owners are expected to receive deeds for land this year after participating in the Mow-to-Own program, which allows city landowners to maintain vacant land next to their property and eventually take ownership of the lot.

The city hopes to have another 15 properties in the process by the end of the year, Springfield Planning, Zoning and Code Enforcement Administrator Stephen Thompson said.

The city currently has about 300 properties on its abandoned lot list, including city land, properties forfeited to the state and extended foreclosures, Springfield Community Development Director Shannon Meadows said.

More than 80 people applied for the program.

“It’s more than I thought,” Meadows said. “I’m really, really pleased with the response to the program.”

The program isn’t the solution to the problem of vacant lots in the city, she said, but another tool in the toolbox.

“It’s turning properties that no one is taking responsibility for, except for the government, back to responsible property owners,” Meadows said. “The moment an applicant becomes an owner, we stop our investment that’s not getting returned.”

The program reduces the city’s costs for mowing those lots. The city will spend about $50,000 on mowing this year for both code enforcement actions and vacant lots.

The city has had trouble keeping up with mowing vacant lots in recent years, but through several changes to the process —including Mow-to-Own and other mowing procedures — the city completed nearly eight full grass-cutting rotations last year. That’s double the previous year.

Residents can acquire the land by paying a $100 application fee and then earning credit for mowing it. The city values the land at $5 per front foot and side foot — meaning if a lot is 50 by 70 feet, the cost of the lot would be $600.

The estimated value of mowing the lot is $35 per week. Once a neighbor has mowed it enough times to equal the value of the lot, they can acquire it. The application fee also counts toward the mowing credit.

The land must be kept to city code standards, meaning it must be free of junk and weeds taller than 10 inches high. Abandoned structures aren’t eligible, Meadows said. If two property owners are next to a vacant lot, the property can be split in half. If it’s a rental property, the landlord must be the applicant.

The city also acquires additional lots for the Mow-to-Own program through the county land re-utilization program, which allows them to purchase unproductive land.

For Springfield resident Valerie Adams, the program has been a hit. After the city demolished the vacant home next to her house at 123 Euclid Ave., she tried to purchase the land but it was too expensive.

“The cost to buy it through auction was more than people could afford,” Adams said. “So when this program came out, this was really nice. I can invest time and I can take care of it. It made it a lot easier to get it.”

After spending about a year maintaining the property through mow to own, Adams will soon have a new yard. She plans to put up a fence and plant a garden there.

“To have this addition, it’s really nice … There’s space for a garden, space to sit outside. It’ll just be nice,” Adams said.

Last week city commissioners also agreed to spend up to $300,000 to demolish as many as 50 structures this year.

Between 2011 and 2014 the city demolished more than 220 structures, using extra funding from the Ohio Moving Forward and Neighborhood Stabilization projects. A year ago, without the extra funding, the city demolished 28 structures.

This year the city will use both federal Community Development Block Grant money and sewer funds to demolish homes to help with the combined sewer overflow project — which is federally mandated to reduce storm water and raw sewage from running into local streams and rivers.

The abandoned structures are still tied to the sewer system, Meadows said. It’s typically three times cheaper to demolish the vacant homes than remove them from the sewer system. The properties can eventually be used by nearby property owners for the Mow-to-Own program.

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