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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In preliminary vote, City Council approves land bank bill

Posted By on Wed, Apr 9, 2014 at 3:14 PM

After more than four hours of debate this morning, City Council overwhelmingly voted to bring a controversial land bank bill one step closer to passage, with support of two City Councilors who have been vocal critics of the bill.

The 7-1-1 vote came after votes to pass a series of amendments proposed by City Councilors Corey O'Connor and Deb Gross, who have been strong advocates of the bill, and Daniel Lavelle and Ricky Burgess, who have been outspoken critics. (Darlene Harris was the sole councilor to vote no; Theresa Kail-Smith abstained).

Perhaps the most significant amendment, introduced by Lavelle and Burgess, would give council "final approval" of the disposition of land bank property for a "four year oversight period." After two years, council "may elect to vote to remove their authority of approval."

Some have worried that council oversight would only politicize the disposition of land. Others have said council control would help hold the land bank accountable.

"I really don't know how I feel about it," says O'Connor referring to the Council Control amendment (though he and Gross voted for it). "Obviously we were fighting to keep it out."

Lavelle said the council control amendment is important because it will "allow us to ease into this process."

"There are still concerns, but they can be ironed out," Lavelle added.

Burgess, who has previously called the land bank "predatory" and has said it is designed to steal land from poor communities, declined to comment immediately before the vote, saying only that he would likely vote "yes" on both the preliminary vote and on its final passage.

There was virtually no conversation over an amendment Burgess suggested last Friday, which would have removed his council district from the land bank's jurisdiction. It was not formally introduced today.

City Councilor Deb Gross introduced the land bank bill Jan. 14 — and it quickly drew criticism from community groups who felt like they weren't sufficiently involved in drafting the bill and that the legislation doesn't do enough to include communities in decisions about what will happen to blighted, vacant or tax delinquent land in their neighborhoods.

Included in the preliminary vote were a slew of amendments drafted and presented by Gross and O'Connor, which both councilors have said were drafted to respond to community concerns.

In a public comment period before any of the votes, some faith leaders appeared to soften their criticisms of the bill.

"I evolved because of the [community input] process," says Rodney Lyde, pastor at the Baptist Temple Church in Homewood. He said his support was a matter of pragmatism and that he'd rather have a seat at the table then lob criticisms from the outside.

"The passing of the bill is really the first step," Lyde said. "Implementation is the real work of it."

Councilor Harris — the lone "no" vote — continued to express criticism of the bill. "This needs more thought and more care," she said. "This is not a bill that should be pushed through."

Mayor Bill Peduto issued a statement saying the vote is "a major step forward in our fight against blight and abandonment in our neighborhoods."

It continues: "This Land Bank will become an important and powerful tool in our efforts to empower residents to take back control of their neighborhoods from slumlords and speculators, to foster homeownership and wealth-building in our struggling communities, and to bring new investment into areas of the city that have been left behind."

A final vote on the bill will happen next week.

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