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Congress Looks to Ease Fee Increases for National Forest Cabin Owners

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Tester has introduced legislation that would cap those fees and create a tiered system based on the appraised values of the cabins.

The Hastings bill would cost $8 million in lost fees over the next decade, according to an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office. Estimates for previous proposals ranged from a decrease in revenue of $145 million to an increase of $8 million over 10 years. The Forest Service estimates that revenue from cabin fees has more than doubled, to more than $27 million, since 2006.

Gann argued that the current revenue is more than the Forest Service needs — or even uses, as most of the funds go to the general treasury, with 25 percent earmarked for local counties to spend on roads and schools. Cabin owners say dramatic fee increases will cause they to abandon the vacation homes — most in Western states — resulting in a loss in revenue.

A century ago, permits were issued annually and owners complained about the uncertainty of the renewals. To give private owners more security, Congress passed a law in 1915 that set up special-use permits for 20 years.

Fees were originally nominal but in the 1950s, the cost was tied to appraised land values. Because the fees were adjusted every 20 years based on new appraisals, owners would be hit with huge increases when new fees kicked in.

An overhaul in 2000 (PL 106-291) purported to limit the rate increases by requiring appraisal adjustments every 10 years. But Gann said the final law didn’t include protections that were promised. Owners were again shocked by high appraisal values in 2007, and lawmakers have been floating bills since 2010 to again overhaul the system.

More than 20 percent of owners pay fees of $4,000 or more, according to a survey by Gann’s group. Under the proposed House and Senate bills, 10 percent to 14 percent of owners would pay fees that high.

Leslie Weldon, deputy chief of the National Forest System, told a Senate subcommittee last year that the agency supports providing cabin owners with predictable fees but objects to untethering the fees from land value.

“Fees below market value can lead to substantial profits when cabins are sold, as the sale prices will reflect the value of the locations more than the value of the cabins,” she said. “To reduce the likelihood of these profits, the proposed fee schedule should be more closely tied to market value.”

Cases of owners reaping a windfall from the sale of their properties are few and far between, Gann testified. His group found that the average sales price from 2000 to 2009 was about $138,000, and 92 percent of all sales were under $250,000.

By clearing vegetation and paying for utility and infrastructure improvements “cabin owners convey value to the land and location at their expense,” he said, adding that the legislation would be “an equitable approach that balances the interests and needs of cabin owners with the public interest in obtaining a fair return on those public lands.”

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