Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 4, 2012

Editorial: Know what we own and why


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PILT — Gov. Rick Snyder can't be accused of backing off big issues. Even ones 4.6 million acres big.

The state has no coherent policy on buying or selling land and has often made purchases based on little more than a request from an advocacy group or individual who wanted to see family land kept for public use.

There are hundreds of "island" sites that have no link to other state-owned property; there are chunks of private property that are land-locked for no good reason. There are places where, if common sense prevailed, private and public land would be flipped to make a trail possible or a farm more efficient.

But as things stand right now, there is no single repository of such information and no single land-management policy to decide those issues.

In an energy address last week, Snyder said the state must create a coherent plan for balancing environmental protection and economic development aims that sometimes appear to conflict.

Snyder's call to "rebalance" the state's "land portfolio" by purchasing some properties and selling off others will run into opposition. Some think the state can't own too much land, particularly if it has recreational or environmental value; others think the state owns way too much land already.

In counties where the state owns enough land to greatly reduce the property tax base — since the state and federal governments don't pay property taxes — officials would love to see a lot of that land go back on the tax rolls.

But not all properties have recreational value, and a lot of state land — much of it failed farmland seized for back taxes — has little or no resale value.

Complaints about Lansing and Washington not keeping up with their "payments in lieu of taxes" — orobligations aren't about land management, they're about the state and feds being scofflaws.

Pending legislation would recalculate the state's obligations and require them to be met in full, which is not only fair but would help defuse needed land management conversations.

Pending legislation would appear to rule out large-scale purchases; the measure would limit the amount of state-owned land to 4,626,000 acres until the Legislature approves a management plan.

As a half-way measure, that's fine. But an arbitrary ceiling avoids the real work — looking at what the state owns now, evaluating its worth and looking at options if options make sense. The other half will be listening to county officials about their concerns and private individuals or companies that would like to make a deal.

Tracking what land we have and determining why we have it is an essential first step.