County commissioner presents plan to tax timber companies, then changes his mind


These days, if Harborites want to hunt, hike or pick berries on land owned by some large timber companies, they have to pay. Monday morning, County Commissioner Wes Cormier announced a plan to combat the practice.

His plan would have used resources in the county assessor’s office to create a mapping system allowing the public to see which land has fees or gates. He also expressed an interest in keeping keys to locked areas at county offices for people to access.

He also hoped to have the county assessor’s office examine taxing practices for timber lands. State law currently exempts timber companies from paying some taxes during non-harvest years, but Cormier argued that if timber companies want to charge for access, they should be taxed as recreation companies.

“My feeling is that if they’re on this exemption, then they should certainly make that land available for hunting, for berry picking,” Cormier said.

But within a few hours of making the announcement, Cormier had already changed his mind, saying he no longer wished to change taxing practices or create a map. Instead, he wants to sit down and talk with timber companies. He said his original plan could have created an unwanted precedent for tax increases.

“I made the announcement and I thought about it for 15 minutes, and I realized it might not be such a good idea,” Cormier said Monday afternoon. “It could have unintentionally paved the way for a future commissioner to raise taxes.”

Cormier didn’t pitch his plan as a tax increase, instead describing it as a means to uphold state law — the Open Space Taxation Act of 1970. The legislation allows property owners to have their agricultural or timber lands valued at their “current use” rather than their “highest and best use.”

Cormier argued that companies can’t really call their property timber land if they are receiving revenue for recreation activities, and said companies abusing the Open Space Taxation Act is comparable to abusing state-funded food assistance programs.

“I’m a property rights guy, but in my opinion it’s almost like welfare,”Cormier said. “If you’re on some kind of assistance, whether it’s welfare or some other redistribution, my opinion is that the state can regulate that.”

“Like say you’re standing behind someone in line and you know they have a card (for food assistance). And they’re buying soda pop and Doritos, and you’re like, ‘that’s the system’s money,’” he added. “There should be some kind of regulation.”

Many timber companies used to allow access to their land for hunting and other recreational activities at no cost to users, but over recent years, they’ve started charging fees and requiring permits. For example, Rayonier requires a $200 permit for citizens to hunt on company land in Grays Harbor County. Rayonier also charges for access on other Washington timber lands, as well as in Alabama, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma and Texas.

During the presentation, County Commissioner Frank Gordon said he would also be on board with Cormier’s plan.

Two members of the audience, both former county commissioners representing industry groups, voiced concerns over the proposal, arguing that Cormier’s interpretation of the Open Space Taxation Act could cause problems for the county’s agricultural industry.

Dan Wood, who works for the Washington State Dairy Federation, based in Elma, argued that there could be unintended consequences for farmers who offer agricultural tourism — such as corn mazes.

Terry Willis, current president of the Grays Harbor Farm Bureau, argued that agricultural and timber land owners receive tax exemptions because their land doesn’t use as many government resources.

“Many of their lands are very secluded, they’re out of the way,” Willis said. “Farmers go though the same thing. The further these lands get out the way, there’s less things that need to go to them.”

 

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