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Council President Darrell Clarke has advanced amendments to the long-anticipated land bank bill that includes changes supporters of the bill have called “deal-breakers.”

Clarke circulated the proposals to Council members via email late Wednesday, on the eve of the Thanksgiving weekend.

(View / download the original document below)

If adopted, the effect of the amendments would be to inject the need for Council approval in a number of steps before a vacant property is acquired and sold.

Among them is a provision that would require Council to approve not only the disposition (a fancy word for “sale”) of every piece of land but also to approve, by signature, every transfer of land into the land bank in the first place.

The purpose of the land bank, whose primary sponsor and main champion is 7th District Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez, is to cut through the bureaucratic mess that’s characterized the acquisition and sale of land by the city for decades.

With so many hurdles to clear, the process of selling a vacant property can take more that three years, even for lots owned by city agencies. The land bank board would have the power to acquire take ownership over the 10,000 vacant properties own by city agencies and also purchase vacant property on its own. The idea is to speed the process to more quickly put vacant and blighted land back into productive use.

But the bill has become a source of conflict between Sanchez and Clarke, which co-sponsored the legislation.

With only two sessions left before Council recesses — just enough time to pass any new amendments after first and second readings — the two have been at loggerheads over several provisions. One is an amendment introduced by Clarke just before the bill passed out of committee, which re-introduced a requirement that Council members not only approve sales of property by resolution, but that sales also be approved by the city’s Vacant Property Review Committee, whose agenda is set by a chair appointed by the Council President. The review committee is part of the current process; backers of the bill had hoped to eliminate this step.

Critics of the amendment — including Councilwoman Sanchez — said it added an unnecessary hurdle to the process of acquiring and selling land. Nonetheless, the bill’s supporters, notably the coalition calling itself the Philly Land Bank Alliance, seemed willing to accept a continued role for the VPRC if the bill itself passed.

Clarke’s new proposals, if brought to the Council floor next Thursday, could change that equation.

The amendments Clarke has circulated would give Council members more power over the process and insert several new requirements  –critics would call them hurdles, Clarke would call them oversight —  in the process of acquiring property through the land bank.

One significant one says that the land bank could acquire land only “subject to the prior written consent of the District Councilperson” — meaning that Council members would have the power to veto not only the sale of land but the land bank’s ability to acquire it in the first place.

It’s not the first time Clarke has floated this idea, and supporters of the land bank have so far balked at it. Rick Sauer, a spokesman for the Land Bank Alliance, said earlier in the day (unaware of Clarke’s latest proposals) that while the alliance was willing to compromise on some of its positions, requiring Council approval of acquisitions was a bad idea and would hamper the land bank’s ability to act quickly to acquire properties before they were sold at public auction in a sheriff’s sale.

Other amendments proposed by the Council president yesterday include:
• A requirement that all proceeds from property sales be “subject to appropriation by Council.”
•A requirement that the city’s finance director pre-approve the land bank’s clearing of municipal tax liens on properties.
•A requirement that the Vacant Property Review Committee post 10 days notice of public hearings and post its agenda online. State sunshine laws already require notice of public hearing.

Land bank advocates had no immediate comment. AxisPhilly was unable to reach Councilwoman Maria Quinones-Sanchez for comment Wednesday night.

Jane Roh, a spokesperson for the Council President, said in an email that the document was circulated as the basis of a conversation among Council members.

“Council President Clarke respects his colleagues on Council and always discusses proposed amendments,” Roh wrote in an email, “in order to receive their input and to build consensus.”