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July 16, 2018

11/10/2017 7:29:00 AM
Enterprise land deal should be rejected

Some people are on the right side of history and some people are on the wrong side of history, and pretty soon we'll find out whether members of the Oneida County Board of Supervisors are racing back to the bygone days of government land grabs or are forging ahead in a new world of expanding property rights.

How they vote on the upcoming proposed purchase of 231 acres in the town of Enterprise for the county forest will tell whether they should be re-elected or consigned to the trash bin of history.

It's a real no-brainer. The county board should reject this egregious purchase, and, if they don't do so, the Joint Finance Committee should nix any state Stewardship funding for it.

County officials are counting heavily on a Stewardship Fund grant to pay half the purchase costs, probably close to a half-million dollars, and they say they are certain to get it. The Legislature's Joint Finance Committee, which has review power over such grants, should make certain they don't.

Only by denying funding for this purchase can the Joint Finance Committee show they are really committed to protecting property rights, rather than merely saying they are.

There are many reasons this purchase is a bad idea, and the article in today's newspaper lays the critics' reasoning out. We'll touch only on a few high points.

First, supervisor Jack Sorensen, the chairman of the forestry committee and a vocal proponent of this purchase, says the property presents "extreme recreational opportunities," but we believe it only exposes the extreme fantasyland he is living in.

Adding an accessible fishing pier and trail for the public, which is what he wants to do, are going to do nothing to attract new visitors to the county forest.

Those who already use a nearby campground might use it, and some locals who live nearby might wander over, but a new "park" outside Rhinelander in a secluded spot far from the tourist mainstream will not turn the heads of tourists, especially when they already have so many similar opportunities in the county.

Establishing an accessible fishing pier and trail might increase recreational users by a handful - literally, a population you could count on two hands, and we're being generous. Any money spent on recreation should be spent to enhance opportunities on the existing forest land.

Of course, Sorensen and others disclaim that that's the only purpose for the land buy. They say the properties are inside the county forest boundaries and the deal will help to block in the forest.

We say, who cares?

County forest blocking is used to consolidate forest holdings, to try and acquire parcels that are landlocked within its boundaries, or to open access to already established forest lands. None of that is at work here.

There are no access issues, either to the county forest or to the properties in question. Just because a property is within some magical forest boundary doesn't make purchase of that land an automatic goal if there is not some practical reason to buy it. There doesn't seem to be any here.

As for revenues, our news analysis shows that keeping the properties on the tax rolls would likely exceed future stumpage revenues, given likely development prospects, and all without any initial purchase costs.

What's more, any estimated real or net stumpage revenues should further be reduced by the amount of taxes the property would have collected. That's because the county will redistribute taxes lost from these properties to other properties on the tax rolls in the form of higher taxes.

That is to say, if the county buys the property, it will lose about $50,000 in tax revenues over the next five years even as it gains $93,000 from timber harvests. But that $93,000 is to be applied to the cost of the purchase, which itself is an additional expenditure, so the lost $50,000 must still be made up.

That means higher taxes for you and moi, and those higher taxes will be soaked up into the county's base budget, to remain forever. To wit, if the county realizes $60,000 in stumpage revenues in year six on those properties, that's really only a net gain of $10,000. But the county will spend the $60,000, as if it isn't Monopoly money, and that price tag will be paid by taxpayers.

And that doesn't even reflect the virtual certainty that the tax values of the properties would rise significantly over time.

So, if there's no real recreational gain, no practical advantage for the county forest to have the properties, and no financial gain for taxpayers, just what is the real purpose behind this proposed land buy?

That's easy. It's radical environmentalism.

Sorensen makes no secret of his disdain for the new state law allowing 100-foot lots. He makes no secret of his desire to "protect" small lakes such as the two that are on these properties. He proclaims that developing such lakes, especially with 100-foot lots, degrades their water quality.

He wants to stop such development in its tracks.

In an interview at the newspaper, we challenged Sorensen to show us evidence of such degradation due to lakefront development. We're still waiting to see it, and we will be waiting for a long time because such evidence does not exist.

What the science says is that water degradation occurs when regional watersheds reach 10 to 12 percent impervious surface coverage. That's not even remotely in play here.

That's why these waters have never appeared as Outstanding or Exceptional Resource Waters to be protected by the state, and that's why the state - meaning, the Joint Finance Committee - should prohibit any use of state funds to buy these lands for conservation purposes.

The state does not view these waters as threatened, so why should the state spend close to a half-million dollars to protect them from a threat that does not exist, except in the minds of Sorensen and a few others?

Sorensen is entitled to his opinion, but it is just that, opinion, without any supporting science, and one or two or a handful of politicians should not be allowed to spend a million dollars to promote their personal political agendas.

In the end, there is a win-win solution for everybody, as we pointed out to Sorensen in our interview.

If Sorensen and other county supervisors supporting this purchase, as well as Enterprise town officials, really want to conserve these lakes forever, without any development, they should approach an organization such as the Nature Conservancy to buy the properties.

With such a transaction, the lands and the lakes would be protected forever, and the properties would remain on the tax rolls.

Taxpayers would be protected just as the lakes would be.

There's really no reason for Sorensen and other proponents of the sale not to take this approach. If a conservancy organization buys the land, their dreams of preserving paradise have come true.

And if no conservancy organization steps up, that should tell them something about the conservancy value of those lakes in the first place. Maybe those lakes, while nice, aren't really the promised land after all.

And likely, as history has shown over and over, those who choose to live there would take care of the lakes since it is their home. That's an outcome environmentalists never seem to take into consideration.

There are those who choose to learn from what history teaches, and those who get on the wrong side of history and learn nothing.

But there's still time for the big-government guys to get on the right side of history on this one. If they will put their biases away and let the markets work, the markets will work, and they would do so especially in this case.

Good stewardship of the land starts in the private sector, not in the public.

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