[StBernard] St. Bernard Parish is about to get 2, 000 vacant Katrina lots

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Sun Apr 8 22:34:02 EDT 2012

St. Bernard Parish is about to get 2,000 vacant Katrina lots

Published: Sunday, April 08, 2012, 6:25 AM

By Benjamin Alexander-Bloch, The Times-Picayune

Preparing for its receipt of about 2,000 vacant lots from the state, St.
Bernard Parish is formulating a three-year plan for distributing, developing
and maintaining the lots through a reimagining of its Hurricane
Katrina-altered landscape. The goal is to encourage repopulation and
economic development while enhancing aesthetics and residents' quality of

About 4,500 lots in the parish were sold to the state's Road Home program
after Katrina and the state's Louisiana Land Trust later sold about half of
those to neighboring property owners in what was dubbed the Lot Next Door
program. The parish anticipates selling an additional 200 properties through
the Lot Next Door program in the next few months.

But what to do with the remaining lots is a bigger question.

"The challenge is not just us taking the lots and having to cut the grass
all the time and insure them, the real challenge is to redevelop the lots in
such a way that can create a tax base to support all the infrastructure that
we have got (since Katrina), to maintain all these improvements that we have
just made," said parish Chief Administrative Officer Jerry Graves Jr., who
also chairs the parish's Housing, Redevelopment and Quality of Life
Authority Commission.

The parish has spent more than $1 billion -- mostly through FEMA funds --
creating new infrastructure in the wake of Katrina's devastation. So the
push to bring in businesses and bring back residents is also a push for an
increased tax base to keep the newly constructed parish afloat.

St. Bernard Parish's estimated population of 39,558 is around 41 percent
less than the pre-hurricane population of 67,000.

The parish also must now figure out how to insure, maintain and secure each
of the incoming 2,000 Louisiana Land Trust properties. The Louisiana Land
Trust is the nonprofit holding company for properties acquired by the state
under the Road Home program.

The parish's Housing, Redevelopment and Quality of Life Authority Commission
approves any LLT property sales and the parish has designated the commission
as the official recipient of all residual LLT properties.

Insurance, maintenance and security for each of the properties will cost the
parish an average of $1,050 annually, according to a real estate market
analysis conducted by Wade Ragas, a former University of New Orleans finance
professor who analyzes data for the New Orleans Metropolitan Association of
Realtors. The parish estimates that it may acquire about 2,000 properties by
the end of 2012 so the annual cost to insure, maintain and secure them would
be about $2.1 million.

The revenue already generated by the Lot Next Door program is about $3
million. That would allow the parish to fund all of the costs associated
with the 2,000 LLT properties for about 17 months. Therefore, the draft plan
states that it will be necessary "to aggressively market LLT properties for
private sale in order to generate a steady stream of revenue and to maintain
a sustainable redevelopment program."

At the same time though, the hope is that through aggressive sales, the
parish could bring in almost enough revenue to offset expenses.

The parish's Housing, Redevelopment and Quality of Life Authority Commission
will hold a public hearing on the plan on April 18, and the Planning
Commission will hold its hearing on April 24. The Parish Council likely will
hear the matter and allow public comment in early May.

On June 1, the parish takes over responsibility for maintaining the
properties, such as cutting the grass, and it likely has until the end of
the year to take over complete responsibility for the lots.

The plan states that using vacant lots for agricultural, low-maintenance
native plants or simply allowing LLT properties that sit next to one another
to grow freely, could maintain aesthetics while saving money on lawn care.

The parish estimates that about 1,300 LLT properties will be sold for
private redevelopment and the remainder either maintained by the parish or
used for public, recreational, environmental or ecotourism purposes during
the next three years.

And despite the recent comment by Ross Gonzales, the head of the parish's
Department of Housing and Redevelopment, that the parish already has heard
from "some developers that were interested in several hundred lots at one
time," St. Bernard Parish Councilman Ray Lauga said he hopes to first try to
sell lots to private individuals as not to put all the eggs in only a few
developers' baskets.

Lauga's Arabi-Chalmette district has almost 1,000 of the vacant lots.

If a lot is on the market for 10 days and only one individual is interested,
then the parish would be able to sell it to that person outright. But if
other people express interest during that period, there would have to be
some sort of auction to determine who receives that property.

Lauga said he prefers the idea of sealed bids and giving a property to the
highest bidder.

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