Proposed bill would limit state ownership of land

By John Hanron
Methow Valley News


Methow Valley, WA - A bill being considered by the state Senate Natural Resources Committee would make it illegal for state agencies to buy private land in counties with more than 70 percent of their land designated as publicly-owned.

The implications of such a bill, however, are of concern to some lawmakers.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Bob Morton (R-Orient), Linda Evans-Parlette (R-Chelan) and Rep. Joyce Mullikan (R-Ephrata), would affect Okanogan County, which is estimated to be more than 80 percent state, federal and tribal-owned.

Senate Bill 5020 would prohibit state agencies from buying land parcels larger than five acres in those counties unless the transaction was approved by the state legislature, OKíd by the county commissioners or was paid for by money other than state dollars.

Evans-Parlette said she agreed to co-sponsor the bill because it had the support of the Chelan County Commission, but she was concerned about the consequences of the state prohibiting private landowners from selling their property to whom they choose.

"Thatís a very valid argument," she said of the claim that the bill would place unfair restrictions on private property owners.

The senator said, however, that she believes itís important to bring the discussion into the public arena. She said she doubted that the bill would get very far, though its primary sponsor, Sen. Morton, is the head of the Committee on Natural Resources, Energy and Water.

The bill is supported by the Okanogan County Citizens Coalition, a group of 22 agriculture and recreation organizations in the county. President Ron Perrow said the argument that the bill would unfairly restrict private landowners was not sound.

"I canít see any validity in that argument," said Perrow. "That tenet about private property assumes that what youíre going to do is morally right, is financially responsible."

The real issue, Perrow said, was whether the state should be using taxpayer money to buy land, take it off the tax rolls, take it out of production and further the nationís move away from a free society.

"The state should not be able to buy private property," he said. "Eventually, if that continues to happen, we will no longer have a free society. There are a whole litany of negative consequences."

Perrow said in-lieu-of payments that state and federal agencies make to counties to compensate them for lost property taxes are bogus, because they come, at least in part, from the pockets of the county taxpayers rather than individual landowners.

"It centers around the tax base and the lack of ability of the government to pay a tax," he said. "They donít generate initial dollars. They have to pay taxes with taxes. They just redistribute it."

Okanogan County Commissioner Dave Schulz said the dilemma was a tough one.

"Itís a violation of private property rights," he said, "but on the other side of the coin, the county canít continue to keep going with private land being taken off the tax rolls. It poses a problem."

Katharine Bill, director of the Methow Conservancy, said her organization, which works to preserve open space and agricultural land in the Valley, is watching the bill with interest.

"We feel that 5020 would put unnecessary restrictions on landowners in the Methow Valley," she said. "Specifically, it would restrict the right of private property owners to sell their land and it would restrict opportunities to protect wildlife habitat, open space, continuing agriculture and recreational trails."

Bill pointed out that land divided up for private development often costs the county more than undeveloped open space, since it has to extend roads and services to new developments.

The bill is being considered as the state ponders the purchase of 1,671 acres of private land on the Okanogan River for a Central Washington University research center. A decision on that proposed sale is expected this spring.

If SB 5020 makes it out of the Natural Resources Committee, it goes to the Rules Committee, then to the Senate floor.


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