May 15, 2007

County policy seeks to limit `land grabs'

Brad Mitzelfelt
San Bernardino Sun

Land conservancy groups have been helping the federal government to skirt state laws for years in an effort to transfer private lands to federal control while paying far below market value for the property.

I have proposed a new county policy to limit those land acquisitions by closing this loophole.

State law makes it possible for local governments and nonprofits to buy land that has been in tax default for more than five years. The organization must agree to use residential property for low-income residential purposes, or to dedicate the vacant land to a public use. These types of sales are set forth in Chapter 8 of the California Revenue and Taxation Code and are commonly referred to as "Chapter 8 sales."

The problem is, conservancies have been acquiring large amounts of private land and then turning the land over to the federal government, thereby removing the property from county tax rolls and in some cases closing off access to public lands. San Bernardino County has lost 735,807 acres of tax base and ranches since 2000 to conservancy acquisitions for parks, wilderness inholdings and habitat mitigation.

That results in a loss in revenue to the county revenue that could be used to build roads, hire sheriff's deputies and firefighters or to provide other public improvements.

We have lost about 150,000 acres of private land in the Mojave National Preserve to such conservation acquisitions. There are only about 100,000 acres of private property left. Private-property ownership not only helps the county provide services by bringing in property tax revenues, it also has a role in protecting the natural environment.

Human activities such as ranching have been beneficial to the environment in the past by providing "eyes and ears" on the ground in case of fires, vandalism and other concerns. Humans have also developed and maintained water sources that have benefited species recovery and provided additional sources of water for firefighting.

Ranching has helped keep fire fuels (vegetation) under some degree of control in the past. However, with the continued acquisition of ranches and grazing rights and with water sources being dismantled, we are losing this benefit. We have seen this phenomenon contribute to disastrous wildfire conditions.

The policy I am proposing was developed with the intent to return such tax-defaulted properties to viable residential and other economic uses, and to maintain the properties on the tax rolls of the county whenever possible.

Approval of my proposal would establish a new county policy that would give supervisors more say about which groups can acquire land using Chapter 8 provisions, where it can be acquired and to what use it would be dedicated. The policy would allow the treasurer-tax collector to approve Chapter 8 sales in many cases where conservation is the only possible beneficial use, and under other limited circumstances.

As mentioned previously, the policy would close a loophole that the federal government has used by having nonprofits acquire land on its behalf. The federal government is not allowed to acquire land under Chapter 8.

My proposed policy wouldn't prohibit conservancies from acquiring private property. But it would prohibit conservancies from using Chapter 8 access to these sales and avoiding having to pay market value at auction, then later turn the land over to the federal government.

Even if denied the tax sale under Chapter 8, nonprofits will be able to still buy land at auction at a regularly scheduled county tax sale. However, in that case, they would have to pay the going price and potentially have to compete with private bidders.

If we are going to lose properties in perpetuity from our tax rolls and possibly lose public or private access, I want to at least make sure the county receives the market value of the property.

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt represents San Bernardino County's 1st District, which encompasses more than 17,000 square miles of the county's vast Mojave Desert region.