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Waterloo demolition effort puts taxpayers on the hook

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WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — An aggressive effort to demolish dilapidated houses has put taxpayers on the hook for ongoing maintenance costs.

While the city of Waterloo leads the state in using Iowa Code 657A to acquire abandoned neighborhood eyesores, it ultimately gets left picking up the tab for mowing and snow removal at the resulting vacant lots.

"While we are uplifting the neighborhoods, it is adding responsibility and creating a growing expense for the city," Mayor Buck Clark tells the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (http://bit.ly/18mAP2w ). "It is an unintended consequence and a growing issue."

Property records show the city currently owns nearly 200 parcels of residential land, mostly in older neighborhoods with depressed property values.

More than 140 of those parcels have been titled to the city since 2006, the year Waterloo began utilizing 657A court orders to secure ownership of dilapidated houses and tear them down.

The cost to maintain city-owned property using private contractors is projected to jump from $60,800 to $113,600 next year, based on the overall city budget up for adoption this week, said Chief Financial Officer Michelle Weidner.

That figure does not include the cost of mowing parks, flood levees and around public buildings maintained by city employees.

Chris Western, of the city's Planning and Zoning Office, is responsible for managing the growing city property holdings, including preparing demolition contracts for the crumbling buildings and working with the local maintenance contractor, B & B Lawn Care.

While city officials would like to get the lots into the hands of private owners — they're listed for sale on the front page of the city's website — Western said he fields few calls from interested buyers.

"A majority of the calls that I get are from people who want to build a garage on the lot but don't live adjacent to the lot," Western said. "That would not be permitted" under zoning regulations.

Many of those parcels are only 30 or 40 feet wide, not big enough to meet the minimum lot size for a new house as defined by the zoning ordinance. But many are original "lots of record" which exempts them from that zoning restriction and would allow a new residence.

Still, builders do not appear interested in squeezing new houses on small infill lots in neighborhoods which have struggled to hold property values.

Iowa Heartland Habitat for Humanity picks up one or two lots each year as part of its new housing construction program, Western said. A few lots are used as community gardens, where the sponsoring agencies take over mowing and snow removal while the city retains ownership.

The situation has rekindled debate among council members about whether it should offer to give the lots away to neighbors rather than demand payment per the current property sale policy.

Vocal City Hall critics often wrongly state the city gives away land for $1. City policy allows land to be sold for $1 when the buyer agrees to make certain improvements, generally the construction of a building that generates future property tax dollars.

But a homeowner wanting to buy the city lot next door for a garden or a yard for their kids to play — uses that don't generate future tax dollars — would have to pay the assessed price for the land.

Councilman Quentin Hart thinks the policy needs to be revised in favor of getting lots, especially those not adequate for new houses, off of the city's back and into the hands of taxpayers.

"We need to make serious consideration to get the unbuildable lots back into the hands of residents," Hart said. "Right now the cost to maintain these lots could, in some cases, possibly exceed their real value.

"I think it would be great to give them to residents to improve their yards and improve their lots and improve the neighborhood," he added.

Hart noted during a budget meeting last month "it only takes four votes" — a majority of the seven-member council — to change the policy.

Councilman Ron Welper won't be one of those four votes. The longest-tenured council member was the primary author of the current policy, which was adopted by a 5-1 council vote in 2003.

"Before that policy we used to have weekly arguments about selling city property," Welper said. "We'd sell a lot to one guy for $50,000 and a lot to another guy for $500; there was no rhyme or reason to it.

"Since we adopted the policy we've had no more arguments about selling city property," he added.

While Welper acknowledges the city faces ongoing maintenance costs for the vacant lots, he doesn't believe the city could really even give the lots away to adjacent homeowners.

"Why would somebody buy an unbuildable lot next to them when they can use it all they want now without having to pay taxes on it or maintain it?" Welper said. "I think it would make more sense to come up with an attractive design for a house on that 40-foot lot and put houses back."

Clark, as mayor, doesn't have a vote on whether to change property sale policy. He did in 2003, when he was the only council member voting against the policy Welper championed.

"I still think we would be so much better served if we approached those adjoining property owners to see if they wanted to put a garage or a garden on them, or just mow them," Clark said.
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