Communities often use land banks as a means of dealing with abandoned property, removing blight and improving local communities, but few focus on zero waste the way the Athens County Land Bank does.
“Many land banks aren’t as focused on recycling and reuse as we are,” says Aaron Dye, Athens County Land Bank property manager. “We’re trying to make things more circular rather than having a linear track to the landfill.”
“It’s been a learning experience every time,” Aaron says. “We’re learning that a lot more can be saved than people think. There was a house in Trimble that was going to be demolished, but the roof was in good condition. It turns out, a member of the local community needed a new roof so it went to them.”
Aaron didn’t even know what a land bank was when he started serving there as an AmeriCorps member in fall 2020. He learned quickly. So quickly, in fact, the Land Bank wanted to bring him as its property manager after his AmeriCorps term ended. But they’d never hired anyone before, so they worked with Rural Action to nest Aaron in its Zero Waste program, effectively doubling down on the recycling focus.
“Rural Action’s board was willing to help the Land Bank in these early stages, because we believe their work will help improve local communities and increase our region’s ability to provide affordable housing and a great quality of life. The fact that the Land Bank leadership is committed to waste reduction along the way is commendable, ” says Rural Action CEO Debbie Phillips. “By having Aaron on our Zero Waste team while he’s working for the Land Bank, we can help restore blighted properties in our communities while diverting materials from the landfills.”
“The Zero Waste team is hoping to leverage this process to get infrastructure in place to recover construction and demolition materials,” says Ed Newman, Rural Action Zero Waste program director. “C&D materials can often be salvaged, re-used, upcycled, or recycled, rather than being landfilled, which can be a significant driver of climate change. It’s a tough nut to crack, and this is a great way to begin.”
“The Land Bank’s efforts started as a small group of us doing waste diversion, going into houses that we knew were going to be demolished and trying to remove as much trash and recyclable material as we could,” Aaron says. “Land Bank Board Member Chris Chmiel went to Ed to ask for help.”
“The first one we did had a lot of hard to recycle materials. We took things that could be reused and upcycled to the UpCycle Ohio Thrift Store (a social enterprise of Rural Action),” he says. “That’s how it started. It’s been a really good partnership because we’ve done several properties since where we separated out materials so they can be taken for recycling or reuse. We’ve learned what can and can’t be recycled.”
“Sometimes we find people in the community who want these things,” says Maria Bonner, Rural Action Zero Waste manager. “For instance, when a carport was demolished, no one could come get the materials, but we found community members who wanted them.”
These projects often spawn good deeds in the community. Maria recalls a neighbor in Glouster who told them he’d taken siding from a house that was being demolished and was using it to repair the home of an elderly woman down the street. “He was repurposing the siding off the old house,” she says with a smile. “It was cool that it was a neighbor who was doing this.”
“All land banks are community focused, but because our communities are small and we’re very much involved in them, we have deeper interactions with neighbors,” Aaron says. “Many times it’s community members who tell us about a place that’s falling apart and has become an eyesore. We check to see if it’s tax delinquent and if it’s abandoned. If it is, we go through the foreclosure process to acquire it and demolish it or rehabilitate it.”
“Doing this in a rural area is different,” Aaron says. “Thanks to the Reuse Corridor, communities throughout our region can work together to make recycling more efficient and local. It’s creating jobs and boosting the tax base, and it’s cycling money closer to home.”
From its formation in 2018, through February 2021, the Athens County Land Bank acquired 155 parcels,demolished 42, and rehabilitated eight. In addition, 44 that previously were tax delinquent are now back on the tax rolls.
There is a strict process in place before the Land Bank can step in to begin its work, including the fact that the local government must condemn the property.
“We then begin to seek ownership and redevelopment of these vacant, tax delinquent, and severely dilapidated structures,” Aaron says. “We either demolish them to build something new and get it back on tax rolls, or it might be a structure that can be renovated so we get it in the hands of people who want to renovate.”
“The purpose of the land bank isn’t to make money,” he says. “Legally, we have to charge for the properties, but profit isn’t the main focus.”