By Marcy Stamper
If a change to the Okanogan County code is approved, owners of businesses such as campgrounds, RV parks, golf courses and country clubs that charge a fee could be eligible for a property-tax reduction if they allow the general public to use some areas for free.
The change would affect the open-space/open-space property-tax program, which provides up to a 50-percent reduction on the market value of the land, according to Okanogan County Assessor Scott Furman. The program is based on a scoring system for benefits including lakes, historic sites and wildlife habitat. Public access is required unless there is an endangered or sensitive plant or animal or a known archaeological site, which must be verified by the relevant agency.
The changes to the open-space/open-space code were proposed by the county commissioners, who found that existing policy “unnecessarily penalizes landowners who provide recreational/tourist amenities by making their land ineligible for enrollment” because they charge a membership or rental fee for part of the property, according to the draft ordinance. Examples include a fee for use such as a winter trail system, a golf course or tourist amenities.
The question of eligibility for the open-space/open-space program came up when owners of the new Gamble Sands golf course near Brewster inquired about applying for the program, according to Perry Huston, Okanogan County planning director. The golf course, owned by the Gebbers family, occupies about 120 acres of the 1,000-acre parcel.
Even if the changes are approved, any applicant would still have to qualify by providing the public benefit, said Huston.
The county code assigns points for high-, medium- and low-priority resources. High-priority resources include archaeological sites, habitat for endangered plants or animals, and parcels larger than 159 acres. Medium-priority resources include properties adjacent to public parks or wildlands and those with scenic vistas. Low-priority resources include some categories of wetlands and parcels larger than 39 acres.
Depending on the score, a property owner can receive a reduction from 15 to 50 percent on property taxes for the portion of the property that provides the public benefit. Structures are taxed at the full amount.
The existing code actually assigns points—as a low-priority resource—for providing parking so the public can access recreational activities where a fee is charged. They must be operated by a nonprofit organization.
Huston said he had not noticed that provision when he drafted the proposed amendment. While it is a different situation from ineligibility based on a charging a fee, it could conflict with the proposed amendment, he said. Huston said it would be addressed at the commissioners’ hearing on the matter.
The open-space/open-space agreements are not common—there are only 47 countywide, encompassing 68 parcels, according to the assessor’s and planning department’s records. Only one—at Burma Shores, a development near Methow—has been processed since 2011. There is a pending application for the Edelweiss community near Mazama, said Huston.
The majority of agreements predate the scoring system that the county adopted in 2002, when criteria were less specific, according to Huston. The state first offered the tax-reduction program in 1985.
All open-space/open-space applications go through a staff review, an assessment under the State Environmental Policy Act, and a hearing before the county’s hearing examiner. The hearing examiner makes a recommendation to the county commissioners, who must approve the final agreement, said Huston.
Other tax reductions
The open-space/open-space program is different from two other open-space programs that provide tax savings for agricultural and timber operations.
There are more than 10,000 parcels in the county’s commercial agriculture program, and just over 500 in open-space timber (which covers parcels between five and 20 acres). Larger forested parcels are in the designated forest land program, which covers almost 2,000 lots in the county. In many cases, multiple parcels belong to a single property owner, said Furman.
Tax reductions vary depending on the open-space category. Crops are assigned different values per acre based on a five-year average of revenue generated from that crop. For example, orchard land is taxed at $2,200 per acre, irrigated alfalfa or vegetables at $1,000 per acre, and grazing at $12 per acre, said Furman.
For timber, property owners pay an excise tax, based on the value of the trees at harvest, instead of property tax. Amounts are set by the state based on factors such as type of timber and soil. Most timber land in Okanogan County is in category 6, valued from $32 to $34 per acre. The state’s eight timber classes range from $1 to $193 per acre.
For all open-space programs, there is a penalty, including back taxes, if the land use changes.
The county commissioners are holding a hearing on the proposed open-space/open-space changes on Tuesday (May 12) at 4 p.m. in their hearing room in Okanogan. People can provide verbal testimony of up to three minutes or submit written comments at the hearing or to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A copy of the proposed amendment and the existing county code are available at www.okanogancounty.org/planning. For more information, call Huston at (509) 422-7218.