New forest tax targets homes in city limits

June 18, 2011

It is fairly unlikely that anyone at the June 13 Hood River City Council meeting would have anticipated an impassioned reading of Dr. Suess' "Yertle the Turtle" as part of the agenda, but that was in fact one of the more colorful events of the evening.

City resident Jim Klaas backed up his presented concerns about a proposed Oregon Department of Forestry tax assessment to city (and county) residents with the reading - which summarized his feelings about the imperious nature of those in power, noting King Yertle's similarity to ODF - both imposing crushing demands on those living within their kingdoms.

After the laughter subsided, Klaas went into serious detail about information he, Mayor Arthur Babitz and City Administrator Bob Francis had collected on the postcard notification he received from ODF indicating his city property (and several other thousand in Hood River city and county) had been reclassified as a forest, thereby triggering an added tax assessment.

"I learned some pretty shocking things at the informational meeting," said Klaas. "Basically, ODF said that having a single tree or 'fuel' of any kind on a property can allow them to classify it as forestland. I live on Wasco Street and have a few trees and bushes."

ODF provides wildland fire protection on private forest and rangelands within its fire protection district boundaries. This protection is funded by a combination of Fire Patrol Assessment funds obtained from landowners of classified forestlands within ODF fire protection districts and the general fund for the State of Oregon.

The ODF postcards, mailed out in mid-May, succinctly summarize the impending "reclassification" process, with which the agency is updating the existing map drawn up back in the 1960s.

What is not listed on the postcards is the fact that anyone receiving them - with land reclassified as forestland - will be paying either an additional $18.75 for vacant land or $66.25 for land with improvements, per year, in ODF fire patrol costs above their existing fire district assessments.

Francis, Klaas and Babitz made some inquiries into the numbers of cards mailed out by ODF in Hood River. Although not a firm figure, they reported it was likely in the neighborhood of 3,000.

Assuming the majority of those landowners have improvements, that equates to a new tax between $150,000 and $200,000 per year going to ODF. Within the city it was estimated that 250 landowners received cards - equating to a maximum of approximately $16,500 per year.

Klaas was supported in his concerns by Babitz, who expressed anger over the fact that ODF bypassed the city's jurisdiction in imposing a new tax on city residents. He also stated that the city's fire department was fully functional and adequate.

After extensive discussion, the city council voted to direct staff to research the issue, make recommendations, issue a protest to the ODF and provide testimony at an upcoming meeting with ODF.

"They have encroached into city boundaries," said Babitz, noting that previous ODF forest classification maps stopped short of the city boundaries. "I would say that the amount of forest has declined within the city since the 1960s."

An exception to the ODF-mandated assessments may occur when large land owners band together and provide their own fire protection. Klaas suggested that the city itself might function as a de facto large land owner "co-op" and request a waiver for those living within the city limits who already have access to the city fire department services.

Francis did note that large fire-fighting equipment owned by ODF, and used on recent occasions during city wildfires, would not be made available free of charge to jurisdictions not paying their new assessments. Reimbursement for their use could equate to thousands of dollars in the event of a large wildfire.

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