Supes ultimately approve letter in support of land trade legislation for MMSA
Another case of “sounds simple, but really isn’t.” During its Tuesday meeting, the Mono County Board of Supervisors grappled with what was to have been a consent agenda item involving a letter of support from the Board to federal representatives in support of legislation, HR 2157, setting forth provisions for a land trade with the U.S. Forest Service that would convert about 20 acres of land at the base of Mammoth Mountain Ski Area to private property.
In the bill’s summary, 2157 “directs the Secretary of Agriculture (USDA), in any land exchange involving the conveyance of certain National Forest System land within the boundaries of Inyo National Forest in California, to accept in such exchange certain non-federal lands in California lying outside the boundaries of the Forest, if acquiring them is desirable for National Forest System purposes.” It also authorizes the Secretary to accept a cash equalization payment that exceeds 25%.
According to MMSA’s VP of Real Estate Jim Smith, HR 2157 essentially waives a federal Exchange Act clause that caps the percentage of cash used in such transactions at 25% of the amount of the exchange. The exchange is technically a land for land deal, and not a purchase as such. “There’s a gap between anticipated value and what the actual value of the land would be,” he explained.
The exchange, Smith said, involves various parcels up and down U.S. 395 [from Lone Pine to Lake Tahoe]. In Inyo County, two of four parcels are administrative properties, which are owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The Forest Service would, according to MMSA CEO Rusty Gregory, be interested in acquiring those parcels in particular to save rent payments, which it makes to LADWP. Land in Mono County includes a parcel previously owned by Dr. William Cunningham, which MMSA purchased a few years ago.
In an email dated Feb. 6 sent to Supervisors Vikki Bauer, who sponsored the item, and Tim Hansen, Cunningham railed against the proposed land trade, charging that MMSA had originally agreed to purchase lakeside property along Mono Lake, and should acquire that property for the exchange before swapping property in Inyo County.
Cunningham at one time was part of an exchange for the Mammoth Lakes Hospital that involved the 12-acre so-called “McFlex” parcel adjacent to McDonald’s off of Hwy 203. The hospital land exchange deal was a multi-jurisdictional endeavor that included the Hospital, the Town of Mammoth Lakes, Mammoth Lakes Fire Department and Mono County, and would potentially have housed an expansion of the hospital, a new fire department building, county offices and a civic center, according to Cunningham’s recollection.
The Main Lodge exchange originally involved 120 acres of property near Lee Vining, which the Cunningham family has owned for generations on the east and west sides of U.S. 395, between the Tioga Lodge and the High Sierra Shrimp Plant.
During the initial negotiations, Cunningham, who all along was critical of the appraisals being made on his land, hatched backup plans to subdivide and develop the property himself.
Cunningham had planned to retain 40 acres to tear down an existing cabin and build a new home on the site, off the grid and hidden from view, for members of his family to enjoy. That would leave eight 10-acre tracts. Mono County zoning, according to the Planning Department reports at the time, would permit up to 47 homes.
Ultimately, the 12-acre hospital land exchange deal in Mammoth Lakes didn’t close, and Cunningham ended up selling the western part of the acreage to MMSA. He did, however, retain the property on the east side of U.S. 395, which includes relicted land along the Mono lakeshore, that Gregory assessed was probably left out of the deal at the time because of uncertainty in the actual amount of property Cunningham owned on that side.
In short, “relicted” means the gradual recession of water from its usual high water mark, so that the newly uncovered land becomes the property of the adjoining riparian property owner. In other words, you might technically own the land on paper, but someone else, either the state or an environmental organization with oversight on the riparian aspects of the waterline, can tell you what if anything you can use it for.
“It was a botched attempt to work with the Forest Service. He wanted to sell land on both sides of [U.S. 395],” Hansen posited. “It should have been a like for like proposal, but it’s not.”
Hansen cited a recent letter from the Inyo Board of Supervisors, which expressed its displeasure at not being informed about the exchange. “There are tax ramifications, taking land out of the private sector in another county and making it public,” Hansen posited.
During his presentation to the Board, Smith said that point is valid, but at the same time insisted that the land in question is very specific, and doesn’t amount to a great deal of acreage. Gregory agreed, adding that he understands that Inyo County is likely standing on principle. “It’s a question of whether the taxpayers want their tax dollars spent on rent to LADWP or collected in property taxes,” he suggested.
Pending a Forest Service feasibility analysis, an agreement to initiate (or “letter of intent” to proceed) and Environmental Analysis (a National Environmental Protection Act study is already in progress), public comment must be taken and Congress would have to pass the bill before Forest Service sign off.
HR 2157, sponsored by Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2011. The Board approved the letter of support 4-1, Hansen dissenting.