Dominick Calsolaro

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After heated meeting, Albany County expected to move ahead with land bank

Published on 2/10/2014 by the Times Union written by Alysia Santo

Dominick Calsolaro

Dominick Calsolaro, a former Albany Common Council member, talks about problems he has with new legislation during a discussion by Albany County lawmakers on legislation to create a land bank, on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014 in Albany, NY. (Paul Buckowski / Times Union)

A bill that would form a land bank to combat neighborhood blight will go up for public comment and a vote during Monday night’s meeting in the Albany County Legislature.

The plan to create the Albany County Land Bank Corporation, a state-sanctioned not-for-profit that acquires properties for development from the county’s foreclosure list, was announced at a press conference Monday morning.

The intention of that event was to hold a question-and-answer session but it became a loud and emotional meeting as some community leaders expressed doubts about the process as well as details of the proposal.

While most spoke in support, generally, of establishing a land bank, the criticisms of the bill were largely concerning the makeup of the board that would steer the land bank, as well as the context of the politics surrounding the bill and its sponsor, Democratic Majority Leader Frank Commisso.

Early on in the press event, South End advocate Tom McPheeters asked to approach the podium. Once at the microphone, McPheeters said the resolution went through a “secret, closed-door process … that is very regrettable” because plans to vote Monday night weren’t mentioned until late last week and since the bill did not go through any legislative committees.

Supporters say they must hurry and get the bill passed because New York has slots for only 10 land banks, 8 of which are already accounted for. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is expected to propose a bill that would double that number to 20.

Commisso’s resolution proposes the appointment of a seven-member board that has already been picked, which some, like Common Council members Vivian Kornegay and Mark Robinson, said is lacking in diversity and community perspective.

The board includes Michael Jacobson, the executive director of Capital District Habitat for Humanity; Albany Police Chief Steven Krokoff; Duncan Barrett, COO of Omni Housing Development; and Charles Touhey, who has overseen local development and is the vice president of Orange Motor Company.

Jacobson from Habitat for Humanity defended the bill, calling it “one of the most powerful tools in ending blight” and said after closely studying land banks across the state, a board made up of experts in the field proved more productive because it was “depoliticized.”

County Legislator Mary Lou Connolly described the board members as “important movers and shakers in our community” and asked critics to have a “little bit of faith” in their elected leaders, adding that “to stop this would be a disaster.”

The board would be required to set up a Resident Advisory Committee made up of representatives from the communities most affected by vacant property, for the purpose of being “advised and informed” of the actions of the board and to “act as ambassadors.”

A similar measure, spearheaded by county Legislator Christopher Higgins, gained traction among a group of neighborhood advocates over a year ago but was narrowly defeated in a 17-21 vote after Commisso offered a counter-proposal to revitalize the county’s dormant affordable housing trust fund.

Some viewed that move by Commisso as purely political. “We lost thirteen months because of that, Frank, but egos get in the way, since it was Chris Higgins’ bill,” said former Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro.

Besides his opening remarks, Commisso remained silent throughout the press conference. In an interview later, he said he decided to push for a land bank after organizing a vote against it because he did not like that Higgins’ bill proposed a board made up of political appointees.

“I tried to take the politics out of this thing,” said Commisso. As for questions raised about a lack of public input, he said he gave out 50 business cards at a spring Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations meeting about the land bank and “maybe got three calls.” He also mentioned that in the 12 public comment periods that have been held since Higgins’ bill was defeated, no one has come to speak about the land bank.

As for the comments from Calsolaro, Commisso responded: “Dominick makes noise.”

Commisso said he is “very confident” the bill will pass. Members of the public interested in sharing their thoughts can attend tonight’s meeting at the Albany County Courthouse in the Legislative Chambers on the second floor at 6:30 pm.

Read the article at the Times Union