By Justin Sondel email@example.com
Niagara Gazette — When Robert Hull, Jr. looks back at the vacant, overgrown lots behind his house he can envision his two boys playing on a neatly trimmed, fenced-in lawn.
“I’d love for them to have a little bit more of a place to play,” he said.
He will now be able to realize that vision.
Hull was one of four residents to seek out city-owned vacant lots next to their houses as part of the Community Development department’s “Niagara Falls Open House” program, which was announced in June.
Hull and three other homeowners had the sale of the lots approved by the city council at the July 24 meeting. The final paperwork was drawn up by the law department this week and homeowners can soon start to mow down chest-high weeds and plant gardens.
Hull said he has thought about buying the lots for a while and actually put an offer in with the city before the new program was announced.
“I’ve been interested in those properties for a number of years,” he said.
Hull will now be able to have a suburban feel to his city home. He bought the two lots on Ontario Avenue for a total price of $600. They sit directly behind his red brick Niagara Avenue home — built in 1892 — meaning that his property now stretches the length of the block.
Hull, his wife Sarah Hull, their boys Robbie, 3, and Jack, 8 months, and their Boston terrier Zippo will have a yard that more closely resembles those in Pendleton or Wilson, where mom and dad grew up, than the typical city plot.
Sarah said they hope to plant some trees and gardens this year, so long as they can find time between taking care of the kids.
“I have an obsession with peonies, so I might make a long peonies garden,” Sarah said.
Sarah said she and Robert love living in the city, and having a large yard for the kids will give their family the best of both worlds.
“We both grew up in the country,” Sarah said. “I had 10 acres and (Robert) had 40, so we wanted the same for our kids.”
Though Robert grew up in the country his parents had lived in the city until he was born and many of his relatives still live in the Falls.
Robert said he was drawn to the city so he bought the historic home owned by Niagara Falls’ first alderman.
“I’ve always had a love for (the city),” he said.
Seth Piccirillo, the city’s director of Community Development, said the program has garnered great interest since being unveiled by his department.
“There are more (lot sales) in the pipeline,” he added.
The five lots were sold to residents for prices ranging from $100 to $500 each, with properties being sold for less than the assessed value.
Selling the lots — the city owns about 600 — for less than the assessed value makes sense because the city will regain the loss in the form of taxes and reduced maintenance costs, Piccirillo said.
“We think it makes sense for someone to own it and take care of it,” he said.
The city can again collect taxes on the property, will shed any liability tied to the vacant lot and relieves itself of grass cutting and clean up by putting it back in the hands of a city homeowner.
“The program has a simple mission of getting lots back on the tax roll and giving neighbors a feeling of ownership over the their neighborhood,” Piccirillo said.
Council Chairman Glenn Choolokian said he is glad to see Community Development moving forward with the program.
“Anything we can do to minimize the cost to the taxpayers for different things, it’s a good thing,” he said. “We’re going to keep on doing it.”
Choolokian said he has been pushing for the city to sell vacant lots for more than a year.
Now that the program has started the city and the council need to figure out the best way to let residents know the lots are available, he added.
“We’ve got to figure out how we can make people more aware that they can buy these lots,” Choolokian said.
Standing behind his Niagara Avenue home, Robert points to some low spots he will have to fill and the foundation of a demolished garage he will have to remove.
Robert laughed as he realized he better start pricing out riding mowers for his new yard.
“I’ve got a $20 push mower from a garage sale,” Robert said. “I’m definitely not going to push mow this one.”Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257