June 3, 2007

Organizations Support Mitzelfelt Land Sale Policy

From Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt’s
JoinBrad.com blog

This week I received a big boost in my effort to limit what have been virtually free acquisitions of land by conservation groups and the federal government in order to remove such property from public access and private ownership. Three well-established and highly respected property rights groups have came out in support of my proposed policy, which will be considered by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

The first organization to support my proposal was the Property Owners Association of Riverside County (POARC), the leading land rights organization in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. The Lucerne Valley Economic Development Association (LVEDA) and the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association (MDHCA) also have voiced their support.

The POARC was formed to protect the rights of landowners. The association is a nonprofit, public policy research, advocacy, and educational organization founded in 1983. The organization serves owners of large and small properties, including farmers, homebuilders and others whose interests are affected by land use regulation.

"We strongly support the proposed county policy," said Bruce Colbert, Executive Director of POARC. "Property often goes into tax-default due to government restrictions placed on property to serve conservation group constituencies. These restrictions deny the landowners all economic use of their property. It is becoming an all too common racket that needs to be stopped by policies such as you are proposing."

The Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association is an 800-member non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of the natural and cultural resources of the Mojave Desert. The MDHCA currently manages 900 acres in and around the Mojave National Preserve, including historic open space.

MDHCA President Chris Ervin said his group’s support is based on both a concern for the disposition of land acquired by the federal government as well as concern about a shrinking tax roll. "We are alarmed by the neglect and destruction of resources as they come under the control
of the National Park Service," said Ervin. "Erosion of our tax roll revenue is a real threat as the loss of income would likely affect county services or require their elimination."

Chuck Bell, secretary of LVEDA, expressed his group’s concerns about Chapter 8 tax sales. "We support these efforts by Supervisor Mitzelfelt because this has been a long-standing issue of concern for our group," said Bell. "These outright gifts of land to the federal government need to be stopped."

Existing tax laws allow qualifying non-profit organizations to purchase residential or vacant property that has been tax defaulted for five years or more prior to the property being sold by the County at auction. The organization must then agree to use residential property for low-income residential purposes, or to dedicate the vacant land to a public use. These types of sales of tax-defaulted properties to non-profits are set forth in Chapter 8 of Part 6 of Division 1 of the California Revenue and Taxation Code and are commonly referred to as "Chapter 8 Sales". This process is often used to acquire land at below market prices because only the taxes due and an administrative fee are typically charged.

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. 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 intent of my proposal is 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 to help pay for public services. The policy would give supervisors more say about which groups can acquire land using the 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. But the policy would also close a loophole that the federal government has used by having non-profits acquire land on its behalf. The Federal Government is not allowed to acquire land under Chapter 8.
Removing private property from the county tax rolls 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 there.
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.

Livestock grazing 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.

Even if denied a tax sale under Chapter 8 — which wouldn’t always be the case depending on circumstances and the supervisor whose district the property is located within — non-profits would be able to still buy the land at auction at a regularly scheduled county tax sale. In that case they would have to pay the going price and potentially have to compete with private bidders. Implementation of my proposed policy would give more private citizens an opportunity to buy such lands. Currently under Chapter 8 sales, the public doesn’t get the right to bid on such properties.

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 taxpayers receive the market value of the property.