Friday, December 23, 2005

If only we could grow soybeans in alkili flats

For a while now, Steve Urquhart has been talking about how federally-owned land in Utah would solve all of our fiscal problems if only those greedy feds would give us "our" land back. Putting the 75% the state that is federally-owned land into private ownership would, as the logic goes, increase total property tax revenue. Unfortunately, more land on the assessor's rolls does not equal more property tax revenue.

Iowa is the state with the most amount of privately-owned land. As such, it pulls in some $3.3 billion in property tax revenue, divying it up to some $1,118.51 per corn-fed, salt-of-the-earth Iowan. Compared to Utah's $751.91 per person, it would seem that more privately-owned land does bring in more dough. However, Nevada, the state with the most federally-owned land in the lower 48, brings in somewhere near $930.88 per person. Idaho, similarly situated, does $889.62. With the vast majority of private property in Nevada being in Clark County (Las Vegas), it seems that tax performance in the West largely relies on assessments in urban areas. Furthermore, Iowa's tax receipts are what they are because it is a flat, wet, and arable state that has more (traditionally) economically productive land.

The way we make land perform in the west is getting the most value out of the scraps of habitable land that we do have. There are a myriad of ways to do this, but the most effective way is to increase density. Mr. Urquhart has identified the lack of land in places like Washington County as a need to "homestead" the federally-owned red dirt around St. George. What is more striking to me, however, is the under-performing real property in the historic heart of St. George. Density increases in Downtown SG would increase property values while hopefully giving it somewhat of a pulse. Unfortunately, with the St. George beltway proposal, it looks like we're on our way to covering the red rocks with pre-fab, ranch-style dwell-pods. And, as an added bonus, it looks like we might be using the same strategy with Legacy (but gee, federal judge, we spent all our money on the freeway already!) to compel the feds into letting us chip away at BLM land. Whatever the case, we've got to be smarter about land development and stop relying on the proven unsustainability of mindless land consumption.

Below is a graphic of federally-owned land in Alaska and the lower 48. It's kind of pretty, dont you think?


Blogger steve u. said...

I don't think Urban Homesteading would solve all our problems. How could it? But, I do think it would help provide solutions to problems like affordable housing and an inadequate property tax base to support public education.

Regarding property tax revenues, I don't understand your point about the amounts generated per citizen by the various states. Without some analysis of the differing rates and tax structures, I'm not sure the raw numbers inform the dialogue much. Maybe all we learn from the fact that Nevada generates more property tax revenue than some other states is that Nevada chooses to place its tax burden more solidly on real property, while other states choose to put it on income or sales and a mix of those three and others. Without details, it seems you are mixing apple and oranges or, if you prefer, apples and soybeans.

To suggest that additional land in private hands would not increase the property tax base would imply that the additional property has no value. I'm sure you could quickly form a line of people willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for any acre you could offer in Washington County. Of course, that's not the case for all of the State, but for a lot of the State, that is just a matter of time.

3:16 PM  
Blogger Shawn said...

The per capita figures are simply the property tax revenues generated by a state divided by its population. The point is, variations in tax structure notwithstanding, States that have lots of privately-held land do not differ all that much from those that don't.

Some feds-held land would have significant value if it were on the market, although most of that land - at least BLM land - would not. However, the value of that land is dependent greatly on whether it is improved or not. Extending urban services to "homesteaded" land would artificially raise the value of the land that would otherwise be worthless. In a nutshell, in order to make homesteaded land valuable enough to have a substantial property tax assessment, you have to subsidize it. And then, that dang cycle begins as the newly improved property demands more taxpayer resources while the older, improved property left in its wake falls into underperformance.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Former Centerville Citizen said...

Hey Shawn, where've ya been? This is one of my favorite blogs. Please post something soon!

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