May 14, 2007

Supervisor's plan would tighten land acquisition

Riverside Press Enterprise

A San Bernardino County supervisor is proposing a policy aimed at limiting the ability of conservation groups to buy land through back-tax sales.

The new policy, up for a vote today, is an attempt to keep property on the county's tax rolls and prevent nonprofit organizations from transferring the land to the federal government.

The federal government owns vast stretches of the county and pays no property taxes.

"Land conservancies have been acquiring large amounts of private land in San Bernardino County, only to transfer the land to the federal government, thereby removing the property from county tax rolls and in some cases closing off access to public lands," Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, the policy's architect, said in a statement.

"Our county has lost 735,807 acres of tax base and ranches since 2000 to conservancy acquisitions for parks, wilderness inholdings and habitat mitigation."

The new policy would give the county, and individual supervisors, a greater say in what groups can buy land and where. It would make it more difficult to transfer the land to the federal government.

But local land conservancy groups say the new policy would severely limit their mission -- acquiring land to help national parks and other wilderness areas.

Much of the land the organizations seek is in remote and often mountainous areas, places difficult to develop, said Shelton Douthit, a consultant who works with nonprofits in acquiring land through back-tax sales.

"None of them have any economic viability. If they did, the prior owner would have kept them," Douthit said. "We do it because we believe there is a national purpose: To see these national jewels protected. This defeats that."

Under current state tax law -- known as Chapter 8 sales -- nonprofit organizations can buy residential or vacant property that has been in tax default for at least five years. They can purchase the land at a greatly reduced price before it goes to a public auction.

Mitzelfelt, who did not respond for a request for an interview, said in his statement that he wants the land returned to viable residential or other economic uses and not turned over to the federal government or closed off to the public.

The federal government is barred from buying land through Chapter 8 sales.

Nothing in the proposal would prevent a nonprofit from bidding on property during a normal public auction, meaning a higher price would have to be paid, he said.

"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," Mitzelfelt said.

The new policy, among its details, would:
Allow the treasurer-tax collector to approve a sale of residential land to a nonprofit for conservation when that is the "only possible beneficial use."

Allow the approval of all sales of vacant, buildable land less than 20,000 square feet in size to nonprofits that agree to dedicate the land for public use. The land would have to be "totally surrounded" by other property already dedicated for public use.

For property larger than 20,000 square feet, or land not totally surrounded, the treasurer-tax collector would refer the application to the supervisor whose district includes the property.
That supervisor would have the power to approve or deny the sale.

The Riverside Land Conservancy has acquired land near the Mojave National Preserve, a 1.6 million-acre area run by the National Park Service.

Gail Egenes, the conservancy's administrative director, said the new policy is vague, making it hard to weigh in on it. She expressed concern about an individual supervisor being able to decide whether the nonprofit organizations can acquire land.

"It leaves a lot open to interpretation, especially when the decision-making lies with one individual," Egenes said. "We certainly feel (buying land at Chapter 8 sales) is an effective and good way to make the best use of some of these very remote and undevelopable areas."