State works to help localities with significant public lands

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Northern Michigan parks draw tourism, but those same counties feel burdens from disproportionate amounts of public land. Image: dustin_j_williams, Flickr.

By Chao Yan

Capital News Service

Michigan ranks seventh in the nation in its percentage of land owned by the public, and state officials are working to make sure that property does not burden local governments.

State- and federal-owned land offers opportunities for tourism, recreation and resource extraction such as mining. But in some counties, particularly in the north, the land also limits local tax revenue and development potential.

“In a county that is 50 percent state-owned and we manage it, they have a hard time standing up fire, police and schools, because they don’t get full tax off that, though they get great recreational outdoor activity,” Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh said. “For them it’s very difficult to drive some long-term economic sustainability or community sustainability.”

According to the DNR, the state manages nearly 3.9 million acres in northern Michigan and 700,000 million in the southern part of the state. Officials have been looking into how the state uses its land.

“Do we have the right footprint? Do we have the right amount? Do we have the right use patterns?” Creagh said.

Counties where the state owns a large percentage of land receive what is called “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILT. It is less than taxes.

“If the lands were privately owned by a business or a resident, it would be taxed by the local authority,” said Ed Golder, the public information officer for the DNR. “If it was public land, then the PILT would come in, which is something less than what the local government would get if it was in other ownership. So it reduces the money that goes to the local government.”

Local government managers in high-public-land areas have mixed feelings about their situations.

“Obviously, when we don’t collect those dollars off the land, that does impact local revenues,” said Jeffery Lawson, county administrator in Cheboygan, which has 36.5 percent state-managed public land. But, “it also provides value to us for recreational use and tourism use.”

Keith Creagh. Image: Michigan DNR.

Lawson said the county is used to the balancing act.

“We’ve had property in state control for a long period of time,” Lawson said. “So what we do is when we have a proposal from the state to put new property on that land, we do analysis and work with them.”

Michael Selden, director of member information services for the the Michigan Townships Association, acknowledged revenue challenges for local governments with a lot of public land. But he said most local governments accept the situation.

“I think people living in those townships where there are large areas of state-owned lands or federal-owned lands, they understand, to some extent, there’s not a lot they can do about that,” Selden said. “I don’t know if, from the legislative side, there is anything to help to change it.”

Some lawmakers have been working with DNR on updating land-management strategy. Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, said he is working on a bill that would require more local say in some counties.

The point of the state buying up land is to improve people’s quality of life, Casperson said.

“And yet, in the affected areas, when they are buying all the land, in some cases, we have the opposite effects,” he said.

Casperson said his proposal would require that local governments agree to state purchases of land in counties where the state already owns 40 percent or more of the property. He estimated that would be about 20 counties.

“In the past, the state might just notify the county and they buy it,” Casperson said.

“Now those counties will have to say ‘yes or no’ — whether or not the department would come in.”

The proposal will create a proper balance between state and local authority, Casperson said.

“We didn’t want to say whatever purchase the state made is a bad one because you own so much land,” Casperson said. “We didn’t want to say you can’t buy any lands. The locals will make the decision whether it’s worth doing or not, that’s a component we missed in the past,  because they are the ones on the ground, they know the impacts.”

In Crawford County, nearly three-quarters of the land is controlled by state, federal or military agencies. “The percentage is way too high for us,” said County Administrator Paul Compo.

“We certainly have difficulty with long-term economic development plans, because we don’t have the property,” Compo said. “There is no place for large development. There is no place for additional housing.”

But Compo said he thinks DNR recognizes the struggle in counties with a high percentage of public lands.

“DNR is taking this in a more realistic viewpoint of how much land they need and where it is,” Compo said. “There are parcels that really don’t help or really don’t offer a lot of value for recreation they are willing to part with to try to help local units increase that tax base.

“Local units get to voice their opinions before more properties are purchased by the DNR, and I think that’s positive.”

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