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Abandoned and potentially toxic industrial sites dot city

Albany Herald - 12/23/2019

Dec. 23--ALBANY -- Sitting just a few hundred feet from one of Albany's busiest roadways, the former National Linen Service building is an unsightly eyesore for city officials.

Broken windows, materials piled around and the possibility of contamination make its presence within sight of South Slappey Boulevard a prime target for Albany City Commission members B.J. Fletcher and Jon Howard.

If 2019 was the year that Albany started to get a grip on tackling dilapidated housing, the coming year may be one that sees city officials start to get tough on abandoned industrial facilities.

As Fletcher, in whose Ward III the building is located, and Howard walked around the site recently, they noted signs that people have been living inside the decomposing hulk that once was a business that rented and cleaned uniforms for workers.

They were joined by Judy Bowles, executive director of Keep Albany-Dougherty Beautiful; Robert Carter, Albany's chief code enforcement officer, and Albany City Attorney Nathan Davis.

"I think the whole message is we start taking our city back," Fletcher said. "There are so many buildings like this. Maybe that should be our message: We're going after you finally."

The National Linen site is not the only such site in the city that is either falling in upon itself, a potential hazardous waste site or both. There are dozens of such structures all over Albany.

National Linen covers some 3.18 acres at 1125 West Oglethorpe Boulevard near the intersection with South Slappey.

Carter recently sent out some 60 "courtesy letters" to the listed owners or legal entities who control such structures. The letters request that owners voluntarily clean up the sites.

Another site that is likely to be an issue is the former Swift Fertilizer plant off Seventh Avenue, Howard said.

Voluntary cleanups are not likely in many instances. No property taxes have been paid on the National Linen property since 2014.

The city has a blighted property ordinance that allows the imposition of additional taxes on such properties. However, finding the person ultimately responsible for such sites to collect taxes or force cleanup can be nearly impossible, according to Davis.

The operators who have abandoned them are often part of a limited liability corporation owned by another that is owned by others. In many instances the last operators filed bankruptcy before abandoning the sites.

"It's like peeling an onion," Davis said of finding the person ultimately responsible for a site. "That's what you've got to do, is find somebody to go after."

One possibility is enlisting an environmental law firm that specializes in such actions, but that could be expensive, he said.

Fletcher said that in 2020 the city should explore its options. One of the suggestions from Fletcher and Howard is seeking grants to clean up sites once the city acquires title through foreclosure and placing them in the land bank.

"We are not the only city facing this," Fletcher said. "We've got to make these calls, and we've got to find out how they did it (and) see if there are any grants available."

Another is teaming up with the Dougherty County government and the Dougherty County School System to have those governmental bodies also initiate a blight tax. Currently, Albany is the only taxing entity that has such a tax.

City officials have requested that Albany Municipal Court keep the pressure on those who are brought into the courtroom in blighted property cases by not granting multiple hardship breaks or repeatedly giving opportunities to perform mandated cleanups.

Howard said that the courtesy letters should be backed up by tougher action for property owners who do not voluntarily comply with city ordinances.

The situation definitely is not going to improve without action being taken, he said.

"I can count 10 that are worse than this," he said.

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