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Soil toil

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Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Kenneth Cockrel Jr. told Metro Times back in April that he expected the council to vote on Detroit’s proposed land bank over the summer.

And that was pretty much the last we — or anybody else, for that matter — heard of it.

The idea is to expedite development by creating an independent authority, run by an appointed board, which would help get city-owned property into the hands of developers. To start with, about 5,000 of the Detroit’s 38,000 tax-reverted parcels would be transferred to the land bank, which can sell the property at below market value. As it is now, the city is required by law to sell property at market value. (We’re tempted to make a Henry Hagood joke here, but our libel attorney advises us to hold off until the police investigation of the city’s former director of development activities is completed.) The land bank can also bundle parcels, helping expedite bigger projects.

It’s not a magic bullet, but proponents see it as a valuable tool in revitalizing some of the city’s blighted areas. Land banks like the one on the table have worked in Cleveland and in Genesee County.

So why the delay?

For starters, some council members oppose the idea. JoAnn Watson has said that she’d prefer to see a “land trust,” in which the city would retain ownership of the property, selling only the development rights, giving the city greater control over how property is used. Cockrel says he’d like to see that idea explored before deciding on a land bank.

Another sore spot has been deciding how the authority’s board is appointed. A 2002 proposal pushed by Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and considered by the state Legislature would have put sole control of appointments in the mayor’s hands. Not wanting oversight of the land bank concentrated in one office, City Council members and representatives of Detroit’s nonprofit community lobbied successfully against that bill.

The latest proposal would have the authority’s board appointed by the council and the mayor. How many board members would be appointed by each is still a sticking point.

“I think it’s interesting to note that the administration hasn’t been up here lobbying for it,” Cockrel says.

Despite the political machinations, it’s likely the land bank will come before council for a vote by the end of this year — while the current council’s still sitting. Next year’s council will have at least two new members (and possibly more — has that résumé been updated yet, Mr. Bates?). Depending on who those new council members are, the whole thing could end up back at square one.

“I think some other council members do have a desire to see it acted on before we go out,” Cockrel says. But don’t expect anything immediately. “Realistically if it’s going to get acted on, you’re not going to see a vote before early or mid-November.”

And even then, council approval isn’t certain.

“I think there’s some more work that needs to be done,” Cockrel says.

While the land bank languishes, members of the nonprofits that crafted the proposal (such as Detroit’s Local Initiatives Support Corporation, which has pledged to finance the land bank to the tune of $250,000 annually for its first three years) are growing frustrated.

Councilmember Sheila Cockrel says action needs to be taken before the year is out.

“The land bank is an extremely important economic development tool that the council has reviewed and discussed for some time now. I would support its passage as soon as possible.”

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