Over the years we’ve heard the call over and over again from various voices, most notably from those within the Republican Party: The state, particularly the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), owns enough land already and shouldn’t be spending any more money to buy additional parcels. We admit we’ve never been too keen on that idea. However, as outlined in a bill that’s already cleared the state Senate and is now before the Michigan House of Representatives, we can get behind the notion of a cap on the amount of state land owned and managed by the DNR — especially because the cap isn’t a hard-and-fast limit on acreage, but more akin to a tool that would merely restrict the acquisition of more land for the department.
The DNR may soon no longer be able to buy all the land it wants, as last month the state Senate voted 24-14 to approve a bill placing a cap on the number of acres the DNR can own.
The DNR currently owns 4.47 million acres of land, according to its website, which state Sen. Mike Kowall (R-Commerce, Milford, Highland, White Lake, West Bloomfield, Orchard Lake, Wixom, Walled Lake and Wolverine Lake) says is more than “any other state in the region.”
Senate Bill (SB) 248 proposes to do the following:
• Prohibit the DNR from acquiring surface rights if it owned, or as a result of an acquisition would own, the surface rights to more than 4.65 million acres of land;
• Require the DNR to post and maintain on its website the number of acres of land on which the DNR owns surface rights, in total and by program;
• Require the DNR to offer for sale at a public auction tax-reverted land that had not sold after nine months and sell the property to the qualified bidder making the highest bid that represented a reasonable price for the property as determined by the DNR, notwithstanding its fair market value;
• Delete an existing provision prohibiting the acceptance of a bid for surplus land for less than its fair market value; and
• Require the DNR to estimate payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) on the land and the change in property tax revenue to local governments before acquiring surface rights.
Land on which the DNR has a conservation easement and is land-platted under the Land Division Act before the bill’s effective date, if acquired by the DNR before that date, would be excluded from counting towards the acreage restriction.
The bill would also exclude the following from the number of acres the DNR may own if acquired on or after the date the bill’s provisions take effect:
• Land with an area of not more than 80 acres, or a right-of-way for gaining access to other land owned by the DNR;
• Land that was commercial forest land on the bill’s effective date;
• Land acquired by the DNR through gift or litigation; or
• A trail.
The bill has been referred to the House of Representatives’ Natural Resources, Tourism, and Outdoor Recreation Committee for consideration.
While preserving forest land and open space is a “great thing to do,” according to Kowall, there also needs to be some limits on that power, especially when considering the revenue loss suffered by public schools and local governments when the state-owned land is taken off the property tax rolls, as well as the management difficulties the DNR has been experiencing with budget and personnel cutbacks.
Kowall makes some salient points, the kind that make us now back the idea of some kind of restriction on the accumulation of more land for the DNR. Each time the department — or any state, county, or local government agency — acquires a piece of land, it comes off the local property tax roll. That means the local government, county, county parks, Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority (HCMA), Oakland Community College (OCC) and other taxing authorities lose out on another chunk of revenue.
Yes, there’s the distribution of PILT by the state on DNR-owned lands, but those distributions — originally intended to take the place of tax revenue, since government-owned land is tax-exempt — have taken hits over the years as the state has wrangled with sizable annual budget deficits.
In addition, it’s true that those annual budget deficits have had an impact on DNR resources, including personnel, which have been whittled back. Between shrinking the DNR’s labor force and cutting its state funding, the department has less resources to manage all those millions of acres. That makes buying more land questionable.
SB 248 is a pretty reasonable proposal, in that it wouldn’t shut the door entirely on the acquisition of more DNR property. With the DNR already owning 4.47 million acres, there’s still some room for growth under the proposed 4.65 million acre cap. The department also wouldn’t be kept from buying parcels 80 acres or less, even after reaching the 4.65 million acre mark.
Lastly, the DNR could always go back to the Legislature to revise the acreage cap figure if a large, truly unique piece of land becomes available and is just too compelling to resist.