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Niagara County Courthouse in Lockport

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has struck a deal with the Niagara Orleans Regional Land Improvement Corporation, a land bank, to reclaim contaminated properties at no cost to local taxpayers.

The deal effectively frees up the two counties, and the cities of Lockport, Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda, to commence tax foreclosure proceedings on properties that are known or believed to be environmentally contaminated, without fear of being stuck with the remediation tab afterward.

“In the past, if the county were come into the change of title for any of these properties, then the county and the county taxpayers could be responsible for cleaning up these properties at their own expense. With this agreement, it states the DEC will not be coming after the county to clean up these properties — if we didn’t cause the contamination — but simply are owners because of tax delinquency and foreclosure,” said Amy Fisk, brownfield program manager for the Niagara County Department of Economic Development.

The agreement will allow the members of the land bank, including Niagara County, to seize property for nonpayment of property taxes that the municipalities previously were hesitant to take, Fisk said.

“Part of the intent (of the agreement) is to take these tax delinquent properties and get them back into productive use. There may be developers out there who are interested in acquiring contaminated properties, bringing them through the state’s (tax credit-bearing) Brownfield Cleanup Program and remediating them for a future reuse,” Fisk said.

In the agreement, DEC identified 81 possibly contaminated properties in the land bank’s service area that could be tax-foreclosed safely.

The environmental status of the listed properties is not known now and, should any be foreclosed on, testing would have to be done as part of the process of marketing property to developers, according to Andrea Klyczek, deputy commissioner of economic development.

DEC struck the agreement with multiple parties, including the Niagara Orleans land bank, the state comptroller’s office, Niagara and Orleans counties and Niagara’s three cities.

“Contaminated properties presented a special challenge for us because we didn’t want taxpayers on the hook for the cleanup,” said Becky Wydysh, Niagara County Legislature chair. “(This) agreement removes that obstacle. And it sends a message to landowners of potentially contaminated properties who were purposely not paying their taxes that those days are over.”

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