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Wading into a dispute over federal land use that dates back to the days of homesteaders and miners, Congress is looking to overhaul the process of assessing fees for private vacation cabins and houses on national forest land.
Under a special U.S. Forest Service program, private individuals can own a cabin but not the land on which it stands. The cabin owner pays the government an annual fee, which is set at 5 percent of the appraised land value. A survey by the National Forest Homeowners association found that most of the more than 14,000 homeowners are unhappy with the current fee system, cabin owner Doug Gann told a Senate subcommittee last year.
“Over the last several years, longtime cabin owners of modest means, whose families have loved and maintained their cabins for generations, have expressed deep concern that their cabin stewardship is being jeopardized by sharply escalating fees, some of which are excessive, above market and unfair,” Gann said.
Restrictions on the land and difficulties finding comparable recreational properties yields inaccurate appraisals that result in fees that range from $125 to as high as $76,000 a year and can be “well above market value,” he said.
A Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee is scheduled to hear testimony Wednesday on legislation (S 1341) by Montana Democrat Jon Tester that would cap the fees. The House Natural Resources Committee approved a similar bill (HR 1159) in March sponsored by Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash. The Forest Service backs the Senate bill.
Both bills would create a tiered system of fees. Homes would be placed in a tier based on their appraised value. Annual fees of $500 to $5,000 under the House bill or up to $5,500 under the Senate bill would be assessed, depending on the tier. No fee could increase from the previous year by more than 25 percent during the transition to the new system.
Once these fees are set, they would only be adjusted in the future based on inflation — rather than continued reappraisals as the current system requires.
Under the Senate bill, 70 percent of cabin owners would pay fees of $2,000 or less, and under the House bill, 71 percent would pay fees of $2,500 or less. A $1,200 fee would be assessed when a cabin is sold or ownership is transferred.
“During these tight economic times, the intent of this bill is to keep the fees affordable for people such as teachers, factory workers and retirees and not just millionaires, which is what will happen if we don’t address the problem now,” Hastings said at a subcommittee hearing in 2011. “The current system has resulted in unrealistic arbitrary fee hikes that are completely unaffordable for average families.”