East Baton Rouge Parish's "mow to own" program was supposed to expedite a property owner's ability to purchase abandoned or blighted neighboring lots they've taken it upon themselves to care for over time.
But some residents and the Metro Council member who introduced the program three years ago say they're disappointed in how long it's taking to rid blight in the city-parish and put some of these properties back into commerce.
"I still, to this day, don't know what the hold up was," said Councilwoman Tara Wicker. "Now it looks like it has become a priority but we've been working on this for a long time."
Wicker said the Metro Council's approval last week of six bids on adjudicated blighted properties through the "mow to own" program are the first she's seen under the program since the council approved it three years ago.
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One of the six applicants said it took two years for her effort to acquire the abandoned overgrown lot abutting her home to reach the council for approval of her bid.
Leaders at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church thought they'd have a title in hand last summer for the overgrown lot the church has spent more than six years caring for. Shiloh's bid for the lot, which sits directly across the street from the church at corner of North Boulevard and Eddie Robinson, Sr. Drive, was also among the batch the council approved last week.
Assistant Parish Attorney William Aaron said there are strict requirements under state and local law that have to be followed before ownership can change hands on properties that are adjudicated — which means taxes haven't been paid on them.
And those requirements, meant to protect an owner's property rights, mean the Parish Attorney's Office has to do due diligence on each "mow to own" application. He said that's a slow process and is the reason the Metro Council is just now seeing the program gain some traction.
"We can't sell something without tons of notice to the people who own the property," he said. "And there's a lot of other investigation we must do to make sure they meet all the criteria of the program."
The "mow to own" program was designed to push adjoining landowners of abandoned or blighted properties ahead of the line when in comes to sales for adjudicated properties by allowing the city-parish to sell the property to the landowner without having to do so through public auction.
Only properties where taxes haven't been paid in excess of three years can be acquired through the "mow to own" program, and applicants must own the property that adjoins the adjudicated lot they're interested in.
Property owners in Baton Rouge who take care of neighboring lots that are abandoned or blighted could be first in line to purchase those prope…
Applicants must also have regularly cleaned up and maintained the property in question for more than a year.
When the program launched, Aaron said, the Parish Attorney's Office was inundated with calls from residents interested in participating.
"But 99 percent of the people who call in don't qualify," he said.
Getting adjudicated properties back on the tax rolls is an issue the city-parish has tried to tackle in multiple ways. In February, 2016, for example, the city-parish partnered with the website CivicSource.com in hopes of selling property faster in situations where the owners had stopped paying taxes on it.
As of last week, there were more than 1,600 adjudicated properties in the parish still up for grabs on the website.
"The good thing now is that we're starting to move properties," Aaron said about the "mow to own" program. "But the law requires we do things a certain way. And at any point through the process, property owners can come in before we close and can remedy the situation and stop the sale, which happens a good bit when we start sending out notices."
Brandie Richardson purchased one parcel of adjudicated land near her home through the traditional bid process. When she wanted to acquire the second half of the parcel near the back of her home, she opted to do so through the "mow to own" program, thinking it would be faster.
"The traditional way was faster," she said. "I really don't know what the issue was. I was honestly calling the Parish Attorney's Office for months asking for updates and they really couldn't give me any."
Last week, the Metro Council approved Richardson's $50 bid for the "mow to own" lot she has her eye on, which is located in the 8000 block of Bayou Fountain Avenue. She said he intends to expand her backyard to include both parcels of vacant land near her house.
With other associated fees, Richardson will end up paying about $250 for property she's set to pick up through the "mow to own" program.
According to bid approved by council, Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church is set to pay $475 for the adjudicated property near the church.
Pastor Fred Smith said the church intends to transform the overgrown lot into a community playground.
Although it took a year longer than Smith was expecting, he said the church didn't find the process off-putting.
"I guess you call it a more streamlined process than what typically has to happen," Smith said. "It really wasn't that much of an issue for us, we were just anxious to acquire the property."
Wicker said her office has fielded a number of complaints about how long it was taking to push applications through the program, which concerns her given the high level of interest by the public.
"I'd like to see it tweaked somehow but I really haven't been able to identify why it's taking so long," she said. "We produced the ordinance with the intent to see exactly what's happening with people coming in to take advantage of the program. Maybe the (Parish Attorney's) office wasn't ready for it."