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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

San Bernardino County Supervisors Try to Curb Sales of Tax-Defaulted Land to Conservation Groups

June 5, 2007

Supervisors tag limits on sale of county land

By George Watson, Staff Writer
Ontario Daily Bulletin (San Bernardino Sun)

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved a plan Tuesday to limit land conservation groups' abilities to buy county land.

The board voted 3 to 2 in favor of the plan, which will have little impact on most sales but could save the county money while keeping land accessible to the public, officials said.

Only about 2 percent of purchases take place under an existing tax law called a chapter 8 sale, said Brad Mitzelfelt, the First District supervisor who sponsored the plan.

Nonprofit groups have been using the tax law to buy tax-defaulted property at public auctions for a reduced price, he said.

Too often, he added, those groups then give it to the federal government, which doesn't pay property taxes. Since 2000, the county has lost 735,807 acres of tax base and ranches to conservation groups' acquisitions, Mitzelfelt said.

The policy would be beneficial, Mitzelfelt argued, because it will either keep property on the county tax roll or ensure it is sold for fair market value.

Supervisors Dennis Hansberger and Gary Ovitt said they agreed with the principles proposed by their colleague. But they disagreed with one portion of it, which entailed giving authority to allow the chapter 8 sale to the supervisor whose district is home to the land being sold.

"I believe in a system of checks and balances. We don't even have the authority to appoint our own staff," Hansberger said, pointing out that each supervisors' staff members must be approved by the board as a whole.

Peter Jorris, representing the San Bernardino Mountains Land Trust, opposed the policy.

"The proposal does not seem to rest on solid evidence," Jorris told the supervisors, adding that Mitzelfelt provided no studies or examples of misuse.

He also questioned giving authority to one individual supervisor.

Chris Ervin of the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association said his organization supported the policy.

While it might seem that his group would oppose it, he explained that the federal government acts as a poor steward for the land it has acquired in the Mojave National Preserve.

His group has tried to buy more land but cannot compete with the deep pockets of national conservation organizations, and the preserve is becoming less accessible.

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