Friday, January 15, 2010

Neighborhood seeks State Review into City of Cincinnati Demolition Policies

The Knox Hill Neighborhood Association has contacted the State Preservation Office, regarding the Programatic Agreement with the city regarding HUD funds to seek documents regarding the City of Cincinnati's Section 106 Review Process required under Federal law to be conducted when Federal monies are used to demo property that is or may be eligible for National Registry Listing.

The group has been trying unsuccessfully for over a year to obtain clarification on the City's Section 106 review process. The neighborhood which plans on making formal application for Historic District status later this year became concerned when the city conducted demolition in and around the neighborhood boundaries of homes that in the neighborhood's opinion were eligible for listing on the historic registry.

In the communication with the State the group notes:
"We cannot stand by while the city systematically demolishes important property in our neighborhood when we, as residents, have no input , nor any avenue, to submit information about property that we believe is eligible for listing. Not every property is "historic or listing eligible" however without a public process to determine that, our Federal Tax dollars may be paying for demolition of property that could, and should, be saved."

In the communication with the state the neighborhood group also notes:

The city has demolished several properties in our neighborhood including a possible Barber plan designed house on Blain and Fairmount that never should have been demolished.
The group also raised questions about the city inspection process noting that some properties on the list did not appear to have valid issues that would require they be kept vacant or have structural issues that would require they be demolished.

As one Knox Hill Board member said. "When we communicate with the city, we ask for information that should be a matter of public record, you can see that no public hearings are being conducted on Section 106 review, and they refuse to answer a direct request for information, after a year it becomes pretty apparent there is an serious issue here."
The group raises that issue with the State.

"For over a year, we have been attempting to get a response from city officials regarding their Section 106 review process. The city does not appear to conduct a public hearing for section 106 review nor is their any public solicitation of comment for 106 review. We can find no public records of ANY public meeting held for the purpose of seeking public input on potentially eligible properties for which review would be necessary. As near as we can determine City Vacant Building Inspections sends a list over to the Urban Conservators office of properties they want to schedule for a "Nuisance" (demo) Hearing. The Urban Conservation office "rubber stamps" it and it is scheduled for the hearing held by Nuisance Board which is not made up of people with any preservation background, or construction background but city employees who are often in a supervisory position over the very inspectors bringing the nuisance (demo) request, which would appear to be a Governmental Conflict of Interest"

"The city appears to think it can operate in a vacuum where they can do whatever they want, that paperwork, public hearings, and process do not apply to them. They do not think local residents have any power to do anything, well they are about to find out" said one local resident.

In the communication with the state the group notes that sentiment:

The city seems to have been in operation for many years in this "vacuum" of internal process without public input as it relates to property for demo and they have used CDBG funds during that time to conduct those demolitions. They will not provide how they do 106 review nor copies of any documentation. As you know they are required to provide that information. It is our opinion they are in violation of Federal law , both in their process and have demoed property eligible for listing on the registry,with Federal Funds, in violation of the Section 106 guidelines.
We are asking your office to formally inquire of the City of Cincinnati as to the Section 106 review process for 2009 and we strongly recommend HUD should conduct an audit of just how those federal funds were spent if proper Section 106 review did not take place. We also recommend any future fund be withheld until the city can demonstrate that they have a process in place.

The City of Mansfield Ohio recently had Federal funds put on hold because of problems with their Programatic Agreement with the state and having no one with consulting party status. The city has been forced to work with the preservation community to have process in place.
Knox Hill decided to go to the State after the city recently put a pre civil war house on Fairmount (one of only 4 left in the neighborhood) on the demo list The group believes this property is important and a potential contributing structure to their planned historic district listing and should be saved not demolished. Under section 106 review the city is required to prepare estimates of stabilization/restore vs demolition.

In fact the city may already be in hot water over another property declared a nuisance in another neighborhood at 292 McGregor. In a email communication I have obtained between Justin Cook of the Ohio Preservation office to Larry Harris of the City Of Cincinnati, the state noted the following concerning the use if Federal funds :

In addition to the language regarding public involvement included in stipulation 11B.1.b, Stipulation VII.A of the PA makes clear that the "public notification procedures outlined in 24 CFR Part 58 for the Notice of Intent to Request Release of Funds (NOI/RROF) and funding of no significant impact (FONSI) requires the grantee to make information about individual projects available for public inspection and to consider the view of the public and consulting parties in decision-making about individual projects"

The city must make information about every project that it undertakes using Federal funds available to the public. Members of the public must be made aware of how they may submit comments to the city regarding concerns they may have about how projects will affect historic properties.

Knox Hill Neighborhood Association is awaiting a response from the State and it is hopeful they can get the city on track with proper public hearings and input, but has indicated it may pursue additional avenues including contacting the State Attorney Generals office and the Department of Housing and Urban development (HUD). The group feels a review of all properties on the VBML /condemn list in their neighborhood boundaries should take place and may directly petition the city council to conduct a review of city inspection policies to see if the ordinances are being properly implemented. The "fast-tracking" of foreclosed properties from almost instant VBML to Nuisance hearing is very disturbing.

My Take: The city and county is about to receive 24 million dollars in Federal Stimulus money for "Blight Abatement" due to the foreclosure crisis. The city has been fast tracking foreclosures for the last year from VBML to Nuisance in a number of neighborhoods that are in the early stages of turning a corner. New people have come in to areas like Sedamsvile, Price Hill, Fairmount, Avondale and are restoring. Just because the city has its eye on a big pot of Federal money does not mean they can circumvent proper procedure.

The city had 'written off' these neighborhoods long ago, but the people who have invested heavily in the turnaround of these neighborhoods are not going to sit idly by and watch as the city bulldozes everything in site to throw up a bunch of vinyl sided low income housing.

The city 'appears' to be engaged in Governmental "redlining' of many urban neighborhoods with its VBML process and nuisance orders making it impossible for residents to turn around their neighborhoods or obtain loans. Hopefully when the city realizes their Federal Funding can be yanked they will understand that even their "good ole boy" way of doing things must come to an end. The public is tired of our Tax dollars being wasted. Its important that those responsible for breaking the law, if that turns out to be the case, be fired and appropriate legal action be taken.

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