March 26, 2007

County stonewalling conservation efforts

Policy prefers private ownership to keep desert land on tax rolls

San Bernardino Sun [San Bernardino, CA]
Jeff Horwitz, Staff Writer

For three years, San Bernardino County has quietly blocked nonprofit land conservancies from acquiring tax-defaulted desert land and giving it to federal preserves.

Under state law, nonprofits and public entities can apply to redeem defaulted properties before they are sold at public auction. Instead of being considered by the board, however, the status of 90 parcels accounting for at least 2,500 acres remains pending.

The de-facto policy was established around three years ago at the request of then-1st District Supervisor Bill Postmus and his chief of staff and successor, Brad Mitzelfelt. Although the Mojave Preserve is an asset to his district, Mitzelfelt said, it doesn't make sense to help conservancies expand it by removing property from county tax rolls.

"Private property ownership, in really the most desirable parts of the desert, is a public benefit," he said. "Once we lose it, we'll never get it back."

Conservancies' representatives, however, said that the former owners' default on taxes demonstrates that the property has little monetary value.

"Our position is that this is a really positive thing for the county," said Sheldon Douthit, who handles land acquisition for the Mojave Desert Land Trust and the Wilderness Land Trust. "We're doing this at the request of the federal government."

Gail Egenes, an administrative director of the Riverside Land Conservancy, said she was surprised that the county would be concerned with the disposition of the 44 parcels her group wants to purchase.

"From a conservation standpoint, these are valuable properties, but that's really the extent of their value," she said.

Frequently, the parcels are remote - miles from any road or infrastructure. Among the most accessible are properties in the desert mining town of Leastalk, an early 20th-century mining town that has been abandoned.

Normally, the county's treasurer-tax collector would review the conservancies' intentions for the land and then send the groups' requests to the board.

"They put it on the agenda or they don't put it on the agenda," Treasurer-Tax Collector Dick Larsen said of the board. "We're just the administrators on this."

But Mitzelfelt said that he and Postmus became concerned a few years ago that the conservancies were sometimes buying up land they believed had a "higher use," whether residential or economic.

Although the Chapter 8 sales would make sense if the land was going to build a school or church, Mitzelfelt said, his office is skeptical that indirectly passing the land to the federal government would do constituents any good. Postmus and he intended to write a new policy restricting the sales but never reached a final draft, he said.

San Bernardino County's 1st District has long had an uneasy relationship with the federal agencies that own more than 8 million acres of its territory, suing over road access and other land-use issues. In 2001, the county excoriated the Bureau of Land Management's decision to remove ranchers from its Mojave Desert lands as part of a plan to protect desert tortoises.

Egenes said her organization simply hoped to convince the county that the land has no practical value.

"You're looking at mountain sides and hilltops," she said. "If these don't go through, an opportunity to place land in conservation where it can be managed appropriately is lost."

Ultimately, Mitzelfelt said, he hopes to see the direct sales to conservancies largely eliminated. "I just believe that there's room in the Mojave National Preserve for private-property ownership," he said.

The conservancies would still be able to buy the land at public auction, he said, assuming they could out-muscle public bidders.

"If we're going to lose the tax base, we might as well get the best price," he said.