Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Officials shouldn’t be allowed to cut back-room land deals

Idaho's timber industry stepped in just in the nick of time this week to stop a bill being jammed through the Legislature that called for a constitutional amendment to allow the state Land Board to undertake backroom deals to sell state- or university-owned lands into private hands.

One of the pieces of land driving the proposed changes consists of 400 acres located between Ketchum and Hailey called the Buttercup parcel.

When the Intermountain Forest Association found out that the bill would strike a constitutional requirement that sales of state lands be by public auction, the group expressed fears that it would apply to timber sales as well as land sales.

The public is lucky the IFA stepped in to stop this freight train.

The Senate, which approved the bill, saw it for the first time only last week. That left precious little time for the public to understand it. When the IFA stepped in, a House committee stopped the bill.

The proposed constitutional amendment also would have removed a restriction on sales of land of more than 320 acres to a single person or company.

The state Constitution and the rules that flow from it also keep the state from becoming a partner with a private developer to create subdivisions or to build homes for sale. That left the Idaho Department of Lands out in the cold during a decade-long real estate boom that drove residential land prices to unheard of levels—until it went bust.

The lands department complained that the restrictions prevent the state from maximizing revenue. It also wants an easier way to deal with leaseholders of cottage sites on popular lakes.

Not only would the bill's provisions allow the state to make land deals behind closed doors, it could have exploded local zoning restrictions on development.

As the law stands, the state can pretty much do anything it wants on its own property. Blaine County has only to look north to the state's noisy and lighted gravel mining operation planted in the center of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area near Fourth of July Creek Road to see the problem.

It's easy to imagine a scenario in which a Republican-dominated Land Board decides to defy Democrat-leaning Blaine County's prohibitions on commercial development outside city limits.

Wal-Mart on Buttercup Road, anyone?

The authors of Idaho's Constitution displayed their wisdom when they insisted that the state do business in public, maximize returns on public lands and refrain from speculation.

The state may not make a bundle by speculating, but if the Constitution remains unchanged, it won't lose a bundle either.

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