May 24, 2007

Foster private ownership of land

Riverside Press Enterprise

I am responding to Cassie MacDuff's column, "Tax rolls, my foot" (May 18), in which she characterized my proposed county tax-sale policy as a disingenuous and politically motivated effort to block the good works of conservation organizations.

Such organizations for years have been acquiring private land at below-market prices and then conveying that land to the federal government. In so doing, they have used a loophole in state law to skirt a prohibition against the federal government purchasing such lands without going to public auction.

MacDuff's assumption that my policy would prevent conservation groups from purchasing such land altogether is incorrect. It would only require that county taxpayers receive a fair price for the land.

MacDuff inappropriately compares this situation to the county's recent purchases of two buildings necessary to house a courthouse and a jail.
She argued that the county's desire to keep tax-defaulted properties on the tax rolls also means that the county should have preferred to lease rather than buy the two buildings to keep them in private ownership, paying property taxes.

These two buildings, the Adelanto jail and the "303" courthouse building, were indeed purchased by the county. But I believe this is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Leasing those buildings would have cost far more than the 1 percent valuation the county would have received in property taxes because of the lost equity that would have resulted. Owning the buildings gives the county assets it could sell or borrow against if necessary.

MacDuff said my proposed policy is about my opposition to the Desert Protection Act of 1994. My policy has nothing to do with the Desert Protection Act. She asked my opinion about the act, so I told her. But she had no basis to equate those two separate issues.

My motivations in this matter are simple and straightforward: to promote and preserve private ownership of land and encourage human stewardship of lands in our desert. I also want to ensure that taxpayers receive fair-market value for county-owned land by requiring tax sales to be publicly held at auction.

Finally, I want to keep properties in private ownership whenever possible so that the tax revenue collected can help pay for critically needed infrastructure and public services, such as police and fire protection.

Brad Mitzelfelt is a member of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.

May 19, 2007

Preserve to House Employees at Kessler Springs

The National Park Study finds no Significant Impact for Employee Housing at Kessler Springs Ranch

Mojave National Preserve Press Release
Contact: Danette Woo, (760) 252-6107

The National Park Service (NPS) has concluded a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for the proposed construction of permanent employee housing at Kessler Springs Ranch in Mojave National Preserve.

Under the National Park Service Trailer Replacement Program, three existing trailers in the Park will be removed and replaced with one single family dwelling and one two-unit duplex at Kessler Springs. Utilities will be replaced and upgraded to correlate with the new structures.

The Selected Alternative addresses the need for employee housing at Mojave National Preserve, and provides for protection of the cultural and natural resources at Kessler Springs. It also incorporates sustainable design and materials into the proposed housing units, such as solar-generated power, certified wood products, high energy efficient windows, maximum insulation, fluorescent lighting, low-flow fixtures, natural landscaping, and nontoxic finishes. The Selected Alternative was also identified as the Environmentally Preferred alternative in the Environmental Assessment.

The FONSI has been posted on the National Park Service’s Planning & Environmental Public Comment database, at, at on Mojave National Preserve’s website at Inquiries and requests for copies of the FONSI may be directed to:

Mojave National Preserve
2701 Barstow Road
Barstow, CA 92311

May 18, 2007

Riding the electricity superhighway

Nevada in the path of new power corridor

Las Vegas Business Press [Las Vegas, NV]

Today, a half-century after President Dwight Eisenhower created the federal interstate highway system to relieve traffic congestion, the federal government is applying Ike's solution to the nation's power grid.

Last week, the Department of Energy issued two draft National Interest Electric Corridor (NIEC) designations. It's an effort to set the utility industry on a path to modernize the nation's constrained and congested electric-power infrastructure.

Megan Barnett, a DOE spokeswoman, explains that the designation of National Corridors is a necessary first step in providing the federal government (through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) siting authority that would supplement existing state authority, in accordance with the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

In other words, if a utility is denied state approval to build a new transmission facility within the designated corridor, it could seek permission from FERC ... overriding state authorities.

The Mid-Atlantic Area National Corridor runs north-to-south from the southeast corner of New York State through eastern Pennsylvania, and along the Atlantic Seaboard toward Maryland and the District of Columbia.


The Southwest Area National Corridor covers practically all of Southern California, part of southwest Arizona and practically all of Clark County. This concerns local environmental officials, who question whether the corridor threatens some of the nation's last great open spaces, including the Mojave National Preserve.

"Reliability is one thing but two of the main reasons for the corridors going into Nevada are both very bad from an environmental perspective," said Launce Rake, communications director at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Rake explains that much of the power that would be transmitted along beefed-up transmission lines running through the Southwest Area National Corridor would come from coal power plants proposed for White Pine County by LS Power and Sierra Pacific Resources "which would pump soot into the air over the Great Basin.

"In addition, he explained, the biggest power consumer would be the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which plans to take water from central Nevada and western Utah, a move that Rake says would defoliate a huge part of the Great Basin.

"We don't need the growth down here and we don't need environmental destruction up there," Rake complained. "Like the electricity grid itself, these issues are interconnected. Those who work for real estate developers and coal-burning, greenhouse-gas producing electric companies are working against the best interests of the American and Nevada public."


But DOE and utility industry officials say something must be done to update the nation's overtaxed transmission grid, to satisfy the nation's ever-increasing appetite for more and more electrical power. They point out that average American homes are nearly 50 percent larger than those built in the 1970s. The modern high-tech age of huge, flat-screen TVs and the explosive growth of computer equipment all combine to draw more and more power from the electric industry. "It's a reliability issue," Barnett said.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp., an industry self-regulatory organization, estimates demand for electrical power will increase nearly 20 percent in the next decade, but mileage of transmission lines will increase only seven percent.

"Despite increasing demand, we have (paradoxically) experienced a long period of underinvestment in power generation, power transmission and infrastructure maintenance," Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman said last week, adding that the nation's power grid is becoming more susceptible to such natural disasters as hurricanes and ice storms, as well as the threat of terrorism.


The designation is supported to different extents by several utility groups, including the American Public Power Association.

"It is extremely difficult to site transmission lines," said Madalyn Cafruny, the association's communications director. "The APPA strongly supported the portion of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that created the designation of National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors. (We) advocated that a more streamlined, predictable siting process (which) gives the federal government limited authority to ensure the siting of interstate transmission lines is essential to achieving a more robust transmission grid.

"Public power systems own about 8 percent of the nation's high-voltage transmission lines, so many are transmission-dependent and rely upon services provided by other utilities, Cafruny explains.

Ironically, while the corridor runs though Southern Nevada, one local utility expects that power running through it to be diverted from the Silver State to California.

"It really doesn't affect us here very much," said Faye Anderson, spokeswoman for Sierra Pacific Power. "Our state has been very supportive in locating transmission lines to serve the load and benefit our customers but this is really a California issue. The DOE's report doesn't mention Nevada at all."


But Stan Johnson, tasked to manage situational awareness and infrastructure security for NERC, disagrees. "The Southwest Corridor will benefit your area as well as California," Johnson said. "This is a whole-area issue, not just California. Just look at your population growth. You're going to need more infrastructure to carry the electricity and the more capacity to transmit the power, the less it costs.

"Still, some utility officials in Nevada say a better solution to the nation's power infrastructure problems would be the improvement of transmission systems on a regional basis.

"Eisenhower started the interstate freeway program that has helped to fuel the economy of America for the past 60 years. An interstate transmission system (on a regional basis) that takes us from a system of single-lane roads would help everyone," said Delmar Leatham, general manager of Overton Power District.

Such a system would allow better access for smaller power companies, like those throughout rural Nevada, Leathem explains. "Hey, we can all drive on the interstate regardless of the car we own."

May 17, 2007

S.B. County supervisor's tax-rolls explanation doesn't hold water

Press-Enterprise [Riverside, CA]

Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt's proposed policy to put tax-defaulted properties back on the tax rolls is really a thinly veiled attempt to thwart conservation groups from expanding parkland in the desert.

Conservancies and other nonprofits under state law have gotten first crack at buying properties the county sells when owners fail for at least five years to pay property taxes.

Conservation groups have bought up nearly 750,000 acres in the desert this way and turned the land over to the federal government to be added to the Mojave National Preserve, held as wilderness or habitat mitigation.

Mitzelfelt says this deprived the county of tax base and prevented competitive bidding by private parties at tax-sale auctions.

He acknowledges these remote, vacant parcels would bring in only a few hundred dollars in property taxes each year, but he insists it would be better to keep the land in private hands.

If keeping property on the tax rolls is so important, why has the county recently purchased two multimillion-dollar properties with large, existing buildings on them, far more valuable than desert land?

In 2005, the county bought the former state office building catty-corner from the San Bernardino Courthouse from private investors for $23 million.

The investors wanted to lease it to the county, and they would have continued paying property taxes. But the county decided to buy it outright, thus removing it from the tax rolls.

Same with the Adelanto private prison. The county was going to lease it from the owner to use as a High Desert county jail but decided in 2005 to buy it for $31 million instead, taking it off the tax rolls.

Mitzelfelt said buying those buildings was good public policy because the county now has equity in the properties and can sell them later.

But the county is going to stay in those buildings a good long time, meaning they're off the tax rolls for many years into the future, as Mitzelfelt himself acknowledged when I asked.

So this is really about the Desert Protection Act, which created the Mojave Preserve in 1994.

A former Building Industry Association official, Mitzelfelt told me he opposed the act because it jeopardized the future of mining, put large swaths of land off-limits to cattle-grazing and public uses and was "overall a detriment to the (county's) economy."

Mitzelfelt's proposed policy was on the Board of Supervisors' agenda Tuesday, but the board put off action on it until June 5 to give his fellow supervisors a chance to figure out whether they think it's a good idea.

I hope they think carefully before putting sole authority over selling off vacant parcels larger than 20,000 square feet -- less than half an acre -- in the hands of the supervisor whose district the land is in.

Mitzelfelt and his predecessor as First District supervisor have been holding up the sales of tax-defaulted land in the High Desert for five years while this policy was being drafted.

Why did it take so long? It wasn't on the front burner, Mitzelfelt said.

Meanwhile, conservation groups including the Yucaipa-based Wildlands Conservancy and Mojave Desert Land Trust are being held at bay on 141 parcels they want to buy.

Their wait isn't over yet.

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.

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."

May 13, 2007

Mitzelfelt wants more options for land

Conservation groups are buying up land in the 1st District

Victor Valley Daily Press
RYAN ORR Staff Writer

SAN BERNARDINO — A policy proposed by Brad Mitzelfelt would give supervisors more sway over conservation groups that are buying county land.

Land conservancies have been acquiring large amounts of private land in San Bernardino County, especially in the 1st District.

"Our county has lost 735,807 acres of tax base and ranches since 2000 to conservancy acquisitions for parks, wilderness in holdings and habitat mitigation," said Mitzelfelt, San Bernardino County 1st District supervisor.

The Riverside Land Conservancy, a non-profit organization, has been buying tax-defaulted properties in the Mojave Preserve. The group can acquire the property before it is sold at auction in what is called "chapter 8 sales."

The process is often used to offer land at below-market price because the organization has to pay only the taxes owed on the property and an administrative fee.

The proposed policy that Mitzelfelt came up with is intended 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.

"Citizens in this county have a right to enjoy the desert as much as the animals in this county," Mitzelfelt said.

He said that he is optimistic that the other supervisors will support the policy.

I-40 bridge work speeds along

A dozen bridges demolished, replaced in 14 months

San Bernardino Sun
Andrew Silva, Staff Writer

Twenty-eight days.

A contractor working for Caltrans tore down a bridge and erected a new one on Interstate 40 in less than a month.

And that was only one of 12 bridges demolished and replaced in 14 months on the southern edge of the Mojave National Preserve.

"It's pretty amazing," said John Diskin, chief engineer for Skanska USA, the contractor that did the accelerated work.

The final bit of work is scheduled to be completed this week.

In March 2006, Caltrans engineers discovered the 12 bridges - six in each direction of the divided interstate - were failing along a 17-mile stretch between Kelbaker and Essex roads.

While planning and building road projects usually moves along like a snail with stomach cramps, the state can blaze through a project if it's an emergency.

"When it's a dire situation, the state has the ability to go around normal avenues to get a project done sooner," said Traci Peterson, a spokeswoman for Caltrans.

This time the state required some innovative construction techniques, including the first-ever use of precast bridge abutments, installed on the Marble Wash Bridge about 80 miles east of Barstow.

And all 12 bridges used precast and prestressed girders, dramatically cutting down on the construction time.

On the dozen bridges, built in the early 1970s, the steel rods that secured the bridge decks to the pillars had sheared and the concrete was eroding.

Traffic was reduced to one lane on each bridge and the speed limit was lowered to 45 mph.
After the bridges were temporarily shored up, traffic in both directions was diverted onto the westbound side, and Skanska started demolishing the six eastbound bridges, one a day.

The $35 million project basically became an assembly-line operation, with crews working on all the bridges at once, moving from one to the next as each step was finished.

"We put together a tight schedule and kept to it," Diskin said. "Everybody, including the subcontractors, just bought into the project. It was just one of those things that really clicked."

It took only four months to complete the six eastbound bridges. Then the crews switched to the westbound side.

The precast girders, assembled by Pomeroy Corp. in Perris, meant crews didn't have to build them in place.

The real innovation was bringing in already completed abutments, the beefy ends of the bridge that support the whole thing. Each weighed roughly 180,000 pounds.

It took only a few hours using a 500-ton crane to lift the abutments off flatbed trailers and drop them in place.

That compares to several weeks to set up forms, create the steel mesh of rebar and then pour the concrete and let it set.

Diskin said next time, he'd prefer the abutments perhaps be in two parts, which could then be joined.

"They were definitely big chunks of concrete," he said.

The Marble Wash bridge was demolished in a little more than a day on March 30 and opened to traffic April 26.

"This is an amazing accomplishment when you consider the size of this structure and its remote location," Hector Davila, Caltrans deputy director of construction, said in a written statement.

It's even more impressive if you consider the crews took Sundays off. That means the bridge was actually built in 24 working days.

May 4, 2007

Mojave town recaptures one-room school house history

San Bernardino County Sun
Trevor Summons, Correspondent

Out in the middle of the Mojave Desert, Goffs is one of those dusty, almost forgotten places where people gathered in years gone by to try their luck with the harsh terrain.

It was the railroad coming through that gave some of their workers the idea of a school, and in 1914 the present structure was built on an acre of land to cater to the children of the employees of the Santa Fe Railroad.

Jo Ann and her husband Dennis bought the schoolhouse and surrounding area back in 1990, and have spent the past 17 years turning it into an interesting look at history.

The schoolhouse itself is a sanctuary to daily life almost a century ago, when a dozen or so children would be sitting at their desks under the control of a single teacher. The first of these was Clara Rippeto. The last ones, when the school closed in 1937, were Anna and Daniel Stern. By then, two teachers were employed to teach the first through eighth grades in the single room.

In the following years, the building was at one time used as a cafeteria by World War II troops in the area, but then it gradually fell into disrepair. It was in 1982 that Dennis Casebier passed through the area. He was saddened by what he saw and said that being convinced that it would eventually completely disappear; he took several photos of the dilapidated scene.

A couple called Jim and Bertha Wold bought the place soon after this and began to restore it before they put it on the market in 1990. It seemed prophetic that the Casebiers should then become the owners of the site, and their important work began.

Today, the schoolhouse contains many of the artifacts that were so familiar to the original occupants, and there is an atmosphere of caring and vibrancy that must have been totally absent when Casebier took his pictures.

The name of Goffs is cause for some speculation. It was one of the alphabet towns preceded by Fenner and followed by Homer. These towns were planned to stretch east of Amboy by Southern Pacific Railroad who were in deadly competition with Santa Fe.

Almost certainly it was named after a particular man, and in the records, there is one called Isaac Goff, who was a railroad locator for A&P, a subsidiary of Santa Fe Railroad, who eventually pushed the line through to the Pacific Ocean.

The present scene is shown as it was intended but there were other uses for the building. It was occasionally used for dances, and back in 1928, during one such event, a shot was fired from a Colt .45 and a man was killed. The victim, Leo Sweeney died at the scene and a suspected perpetrator, Doug Craig was charged with murder. The charge was eventually dismissed and Craig went free.

This was not the only piece of violence in the remote desert area. There is one grizzly artifact on the back wall of the schoolhouse.

In 1908, one Joseph "Hootch" Simpson was hung in Death Valley County by an angry citizenry, tired of his ways. The Press tore out to witness the scene but Hootch had already been cut down.
Nonetheless, in pursuit of a hot story the press persuaded those in attendance to re-hang Hootch so they could get photos. One of these is in the case with the actual noose that sent Hootch to the hereafter.

For the regular youngsters 412 in all who passed their days at the schoolhouse, no doubt there were some happy times away from the heat and dust of the desert, and a lot of evidence to that fact has been gathered by the enthusiastic owners of the site.

Goffs Schoolhouse is opened by appointment and you can find more information at (760) 733-4848 or on the Web site: