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Another City Turns to Mow-to-Own Program

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Plagued by vacant land maintenance costs, municipalities can reduce blight while putting property back on the tax rolls.

Residents in Memphis can soon own vacant city and county land adjoining their property, provided they mow it—a program that’s been cropping up in a handful of municipalities.

Many residents in Tennessee largest city have been mowing neighboring parcels for years, but an ordinance approved Oct. 20 on first reading by City Council credits mowers $25 cut for three years.

So long as the lot costs between $500 and $10,000 and the resident pays the $175 administrative fee and any difference remaining, Memphis will deed them the land at the end of that period.

"So in essence, we're hoping this will reduce the city and county's cost of maintaining these properties, it will actually take a nontaxable property and put it back on the city and county tax rolls and it will actually create and put pride back in some of these neighborhoods," said Councilmember Berlin Boyd, who proposed the ordinance, according to The Commercial Appeal.

The city of Memphis and Shelby County currently spend $8 million annually maintaining about 3,500 vacant lots in the county land bank—97 percent of the parcels falling inside city limits. The city owns around 200 lots.

Noticing residents—fearful unkempt neighboring lots would hurt their own property value—mowing parcels, Columbus, Ohio, created its mow-to-own program in 2012.

Both programs also allow nonprofits to accrue “sweat equity” tending adjacent plots.

Columbus’ program prohibits buyers who have delinquent taxes in Franklin County or a history of property violations, and they can’t sell for five years. But improvements like landscaping and fencing can also lower the final cost, so long as they’re less than 50 percent of the property’s value.

Rockford, Illinois, approved a mow-to-own program in March because more than 100 vacant lots were costing the city $40,000 annually to mow.

While New Orleans City Council approved a similar program in November, it was put on hold until after bidders first had a chance at eligible lots at auction over the summer.

Participants first have to get the desired property appraised to buy it at fair market value. Selling it for less anywhere other than at auction violates Louisiana’s constitution.

Dave Nyczepir is News Editor for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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