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Leon owes roughly $16,000 in back taxes

The owner of several downtown Austin lots destroyed in a large January 2009 fire owes roughly $16,000 in delinquent taxes on the properties — and the land could eventually end up in the hands of the city if the amount isn’t paid.

Maria Leon, the property owner in question who has since moved from Austin and is believed to currently be living in Worthington, Minn., also owes the city roughly $140,000 for work done to clean-up her properties. That was decided by a Mower County judge in February, the result of a civil proceeding initiated by the city in May when Leon refused to clean-up the rubble left from the Jan. 15, 2009, fire.

Tom Dankert, Austin administrative services director, said the two costs facing Leon are separate issues. However, if Leon doesn’t pay her taxes — by state law, she has a three-year window — then the city could acquire the land.

However, the process would be more complicated than simply handing over the barren lots to the city. If Leon in fact fails to pay the $16,000 owed, the land would be forfeited to the state and managed by Mower County. From there, the county board could classify the land as either needed for conservation purposes or not. If the land were to be conserved — a consideration often made based on surrounding land usage — the process would essentially end there.

But, if the county were to deem that the land should not be conserved — and the City Council agreed — then things would get more interesting. At that point, if the city were to have interest in acquiring the land, it could request that the county withhold the land from public sale for six months while city officials put together an application. If no application was received, or if the county were to reject the city’s proposal, the land would go up for public sale.

Of course, a lot has to happen before any of that becomes reality. But the city would likely take a long look at acquiring the land if it could — with the lots currently privately owned, the city’s hands have been tied when it comes to any development efforts in the area. Short of pursuing eminent domain, the only real option has been to clear the rubble and let the ground remain bare, leaving an eyesore — and not utilizing valuable space — in a prominent Main Street locale.

City zoning and planning administrator Craig Hoium said in an e-mail that the city “is not currently active in marketing or developing this property for the City does not currently own the property.” He also said that the city has not had any discussions with Leon or her attorney because neither “return calls or letters sent out relating to this property.”

However, that doesn’t mean that Hoium and his staff haven’t been thinking about what would be best for downtown. In a previous interview, he said a mix of retail storefronts and possibly upper-level apartments would be a good fit, though he noted at the time that his role would only be to make sure private owners meet building and zoning codes. But if the property had the potential to change hands, Hoium said it would be something worth exploring.

“If it got to that point, obviously the city would be interested,” he said.