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What Gainesville is doing about abandoned properties
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Windows are boarded up Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018, at a house along Thompson Bridge Road. Gainesville officials are working to address vacant and abandoned properties. - photo by Scott Rogers

Gainesville officials are working on two initiatives, a land bank and adjustments to the city’s property maintenance regulations, part of efforts to improve housing conditions and neighborhood blight.

The city’s community development director, Rusty Ligon, said city staff are working to determine exactly how many abandoned properties are in Gainesville, but the current estimate is about 50.

The Gainesville City Council voted Aug. 7 to approve the Gainesville-Hall County Land Bank, a board that will acquire, manage and sell vacant properties. The land bank’s board, which will have city and county appointees, will work with contractors to fix up homes and make them livable.

“The land bank is able to acquire some of these properties, extinguish back taxes, and we can sell the property to a developer for residential or commercial use. They can fix up a structure, build new structures and get (them) back on the tax rolls,” Ligon said. “A residential property can provide housing for a family there. The land bank is another tool that we can use to get properties back in a productive mode again.”

State law requires cities and counties to establish a land bank together, so the land bank will be a collaborative effort between Gainesville and Hall County. The land bank will not have the power of eminent domain.

Ligon said code enforcement staff have noticed abandoned properties when visiting specified areas to document code violations.

While vacant properties are not a rampant issue in the city, it is best to address those properties proactively, Ligon said.

“You don’t see a big number in the city, but we do have some, and we need to address those. … The ones that exist have existed for a long time,” he said.

City Manager Bryan Lackey said fixing up homes improves the surrounding neighborhoods.

“We want to be able to have a mechanism that gets that property back into a secure situation where it’s not left to be boarded up and sort of a blight on a neighborhood and community,” Lackey said.

Ligon said properties become vacant for a variety of reasons. Often, a property owner does not have the resources to invest in a property and keep it up to code. People may also inherit a property that they don’t know what to do with, and the building may be boarded up and vacant while they decide what to do, he said.

Sgt. Kevin Holbrook with the Gainesville Police Department said law enforcement officers operate on the “broken window theory,” and addressing even one property can help the whole neighborhood.

“One broken window will lead to two, will lead to three and so forth and so on,” Holbrook said. “Typically, if you have that one run-down or vacant property, that in and of itself is a haven for criminal activity, thus bringing in additional criminal activity.”

That idea is part of the theory of crime prevention through environmental design, Holbrook said, which involves people from multiple disciplines, including law enforcement, educators, planners and architects, combining efforts to deter crime by creating an environment where people are less likely to participate in criminal activity.

Gainesville is also addressing vacant or blighted properties through changes to its land development code, which went into effect after City Council approved the changes Aug. 7.

Anyone who wants to board up a property now needs to apply for a permit with the city. The permit will last six months and can be renewed once, so the maximum amount of time a building can be boarded up is one year. Gainesville did not previously have a time limit for boarding up structures. Plastic or nylon tarps are also no longer allowed on the exterior of buildings.

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