'Good Neighbor Act' Seeks to End 'Land Grabs'

By Jason Pierce
CNSNews.com Staff Writer
March 18, 2002

(CNSNews.com) - New legislation in the U.S. House would discourage what property rights advocates call "land grabs" on the part of the federal government. But one prominent environmental group calls the bill "silly and unnecessary."

The Good Neighbor Act would affect counties where more than 50 percent of the land is already owned by the National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, or Fish and Wildlife Service. In order to buy more land, the federal government would have to sell a piece of land worth at least 97 percent of the fair market value of the land to be acquired.

Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.) is the bill's sponsor.

"With Washington already owning one-third of America, we cannot afford to wait any longer to reform the federal government's runaway land acquisition process," Peterson said. "A good neighbor doesn't move into your house and take over, especially when they're not invited.

"But somehow the federal government has no problem moving into a region and taking over without the slightest regard for the people who live there," Peterson said.

Rep. Butch Otter (R-Idaho), a co-sponsor of the bill, said when the federal government buys large plots of land, it reduces the amount of tax dollars available to local governments. A federal program to reimburse counties, called Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), is inadequate, Otter said.

"In some instances, the counties go from receiving four dollars per acre in tax revenue generated from private land, to fourteen cents per acre when the federal government takes it over," Otter said. "These counties are already struggling under the weight of the federal government. This bill prevents they from being weighed down even more."

The bill would allow the federal government to buy land without selling land if the following conditions were met:

-- When a county is 50-65 percent owned by federal agencies, the state's governor must approve the sale; notice must be given to county, state, and federal elected officials; and a hearing must be held in the affected county.

-- When the federal government owns 66 percent or more of a county, county elected officials must approve the sale; the governor must approve; notice must be provided to county, state, and federal elected officials; and a hearing must be held in the affected county.

-- Where the federal government owns 65 percent or less of a county and the land being purchased is 40 acres or less, the government can move ahead by notifying county, state, and federal elected officials.

Jim Waltman, spokesman for The Wilderness Society, called Peterson's bill "silly and unnecessary."

"This is not serious legislation," Waltman said. "In fact, it is about the most anti private property rights piece of legislation I have seen in a while.

"To suggest an individual land owner can't sell his land to the federal government without jumping through all these hoops, which is what this legislation would appear to do, infringes upon somebody's most fundamental property right, which is to sell their land to any entity that the person so chooses," Waltman said.

In most cases, the counties benefit economically from federal land acquisitions, according to Waltman.

"We have done analyses here and seen many others done by independent economists that show that federal lands, particularly a park or a refuge, add tremendously to the economic base of a community," Waltman said. "They add in a way that far offsets any decline in property taxes.

"There are many counties in this country where the [PILT] program actually provides more money to a county than the county taxes otherwise would have," Waltman said.

Peterson said his bill would allow communities affected by federal land purchases to have a say in the matter.

"While federal lands play an important role in preserving our national heritage and our rich environment, the land acquisition process should not occur at the expense of local communities," Peterson said.

"Our federal agencies must start respecting and working with the citizens of rural America if we are to be successful at protecting our heritage, environment, and our rural way of life," he added.

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