Landowners in Clatsop County are challenging a fee assessed by the state for fire protection, citing improper classification and a lack of advance notice.
In early January, roughly 2,300 landowners in the Astoria Forest Protection District were notified that their properties, designated as forestlands in July, would be assessed an annual fee for fire protection as part of their property taxes. But some argue either that their properties should not qualify as forestland or they had not received proper notice.
The Oregon Department of Forestry provides fire protection to forest and grazing lands through money from both the state general fund and fees it collects from forestland property owners.
Overall, roughly 4,750 lots were added as forestlands, while 1,200 lots — including 600 owners — were removed from the list.
The current annual tax rate in the Astoria district is $1.21 per acre, and owners of forestlands are charged a minimum assessment of $18.75 each year. A $47.50 surcharge can be added if property owners build additional structures on their land.
The money collected from these fees fund wildfire efforts in the state. Rates could vary each year based on the number of wildfires the Department of Forestry responds to in a given year and the number of people paying into the system, Astoria District Forester Dan Goody said. The department does not receive any additional revenue from the assessments.
While many of these property owners also pay taxes to local fire districts that respond to structural fires, the Department of Forestry’s assessment is based on lands it would protect during a wildfire, Goody said. Therefore, many property owners who don’t have many trees or vegetation on their land may also be subjected to these taxes.
But some property owners have been confused about the distinction. Tim Mancill, who has owned a 2.36 acre lot on North Wahanna Road in Seaside for almost 13 years that also includes his home, was assessed $66.25 for his property. Much of his property includes wetlands, which are submerged underwater for much of the year, along with some willow trees.
“I think they’re out for a money grab,” Mancill said. “Don’t they have better things to do with their time?”
Goody said people would be surprised about the kinds of land that allow wildfires to spread quickly. In his experience, even lands such as cranberry bogs have caught fire, he said.
In October 2013, a fire assessment committee began its review of the Astoria district. The six-member committee included appointments made by the Department of Forestry, the Oregon State Fire Marshal, the Oregon State University Extension Service and three by the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners. Following a review, the committee made recommendations about what areas could be reclassified as forestlands.
“I don’t mean any disrespect to any of the folks living on the lands, but there is over 100 years of experience studying fire risks on the committee,” Goody said.
Two public meetings and one hearing in May in Astoria and Seaside produced no oral or written public comments, Goody said. The final classification was recorded by the county in July.
The problem: some property owners whose lands were reclassified were completely unaware that this process took place.
“I was surprised and was like, ‘What the heck is this?’” Mancill said about the moment he received the notice in January.
Mancill was one of about 70 landowners who attended a town hall meeting in Seaside on Saturday, Feb. 4, to discuss the issue. The town hall, organized by state Sen. Betsy Johnson and state Rep. Deborah Boone, featured local officials and members of the Department of Forestry, as well as concerned landowners. At times, the town hall became disorganized with attendees shouting out of turn, multiple people who were there said.
“There were so many questions,” said Coral Rose Shipley, a Seaside property owner. “It was very hard for the people presenting to make their presentations. They had one outlook and the audience had another outlook.”
Goody said he was surprised to hear that many property owners were not aware of the classifications in 2016. The state had sent postcards 10 months prior to the letter sent in early January, so residents may have disregarded them as junk mail, he said.
“They get a lot of mail, a lot of junk mail, and a lot of that gets overlooked,” Goody said. “It definitely was not the intent to blindside people.”
The classification process is now final, but the Department of Forestry received 29 appeals of the assessment prior to Monday’s deadline. The appeal process will likely last until sometime this spring, Goody said. Once the process is completed, the reclassified land will be added to the Forest Patrol Assessment Roll in July.
While the state sent out postcards, held public meetings and sent notices to newspapers, it typically sees little involvement from the public until late in the process, Goody said.
“We typically don’t get much public involvement until it starts hitting the pocketbooks,” he said. “Our honest intent is to make forestland assessment honest and equitable to all.”
County Manager Cameron Moore said at the Feb. 8 Clatsop County Board of Commissioner’s meeting that the county was not notified in advance about the letter sent out in January. He also said ODF officials apologized to the county for the confusion during a meeting on Friday.
Sen. Johnson said she had preliminary discussions with top officials at ODF earlier this week about making adjustments to the assessments in Clatsop County. Adjustments would be based on the apparent failure of communication, she said.
“The number of people who attended the town hall meeting gave rise to the fact that there was some kind of failure to communicate,” Johnson said. “If we had this kind of disconnect in communication, something is wrong.”