Mechanism for reusing vacant home sites to be discussed this week

The Brown County Redevelopment Commission (RDC) will consider a charter for a new entity, the Brown County Landbank, at its next meeting on Thursday, July 22.

Land banks are allowed under state law, but only a handful of communities have them, and none as small as Brown County. They are 501(c)3 tax-exempt entities that can acquire, lease, hold and/or sell properties so that they can be redeveloped. In Brown County, the intent of the charter is to use properties in the land bank as places to put housing.

This is a concept that the RDC has been talking about for more than two years. RDC member Justin Schwenk briefed the county council and county commissioners in July 2019 and did a presentation at the Brown County Playhouse in August 2019. Schwenk is now the president of the RDC.

Since this past winter, RDC members and other volunteers have been gathering data on land use in Brown County through a survey tool called Landgrid. After canvassing most of Van Buren and Washington townships so far, they reported identifying around 60 land parcels where a vacant home was found and a new home could be built instead.

RDC members have pointed out in past meetings that putting a new home or two where an old one used to be would have less impact on the surrounding neighbors than building an entirely new neighborhood on vacant land would.

To continue to pay for services its residents need and want, the county needs people living here. Brown County is projected to lose 9 percent of its population by 2050 if conditions stay as they were when that projection was made in 2017.

To go into the land bank, a property would have to go into the county tax sale and not find a buyer. From those that are not “redeemed” (reclaimed by the owner by paying the back taxes owed), the land bank could choose some to acquire, get the county to wipe out the tax debt, and sell or lease those properties to an individual or to a builder/developer who agrees to put a new home on them. The sale price for the land to a new owner could range from $1 to fair market value.

Under the language proposed for the Brown County Landbank charter, “no property shall be acquired by the corporation if said property is currently occupied or is the full-time primary residence of the property owner.”

“This is not a way of snatching our own people’s land,” Schwenk said a July 15 discussion about housing with the READI grant planning group.

The RDC will not support acquiring homes that people are currently living in. Rather, “this is a way to reutilize land that is owned by someone in New Hampshire, or that came to them however way, and they’re just not doing anything with it and there’s a home on the land,” he said.

After acquiring properties and before releasing them to new owners, the land bank will be responsible for maintaining them, as well as marketing and demolition efforts as appropriate, the proposed charter says. The land bank leaders also could decide if acquired properties are appropriate to subdivide into smaller tracts to increase housing density, such as building apartments.

According to the proposed charter, people eligible to become the new owners of these properties would either need to be:

  • a licensed and bonded contractor or builder whose intent is to construct, renovate or rehabilitate a property for resale subject to the regulations contained in the land bank charter; or
  • a person whose intent it is to make the property their primary, full-time residence.

That means that any new homes built on these properties could not immediately become short-term rentals, like tourist homes. The document says that potential owners of these properties “must commit to residing on the property in a permanent home for at least three years.”

The charter also says that “the corporation shall prioritize transfer of … (these) homes to first-time homebuyers, veterans, and families with minor children,” subject to anti-discrimination laws.

Any builders who acquire land through the land bank would be able to receive land for $1, would have to build a house on it within 16 months, and would have to set a sale price for the house that does not exceed a maximum price that land bank officials would approve.

One big idea driving the program is to get more homes at “attainable” prices into the local market — especially for people who cannot afford the median listing price of $279,000 in Brown County right now.

“So, as a contractor, you can go backwards and say, “OK, at $180,000, on this land, I’m only going to be able to put in an 800-square-foot home and still make a little money off it,” Schwenk said, citing an example of how the price-setting process with a contractor would work.

The RDC plans to discuss this document at its next meeting on Thursday, July 22 and start the public comment process. Then, the RDC could do a second reading and pass a resolution supporting the land bank by its August meeting and pass the document to the county commissioners for their first meeting in September, Schwenk said.

He estimated that the earliest the land bank could be up and running would be January 2022.

The draft charter document is posted on the RDC’s website, choosebrowncounty.com. Click on “RDC Google Drive” and then “BC Landbank Charter.”

The RDC will meet at Brown County Middle School (formerly known as the junior high) at 6 p.m.