Land-Management Bills Would Aid Washington Schools
Four measures have been introduced in the Washington State House of Representatives that could add $120 million over 10 years to the income that public schools receive from state-owned trust lands.
If all four measures (now before the Natural Resources Committee) pass, the legislation would, in effect, establish a comprehensive plan for managing the state's 120,000 acres of "transition lands"--once-rural property located in what are now suburban or urban areas and thus suitable for commercial or residential development.
And in the process, Washington would become one of the very few "forward-looking" states in the country to actively manage, rather than sell off or simply "hold," its suburban and urban properties, according to a consultant who has worked on the Washington plans.
Under the proposed legislation, Washington's public schools could receive as much as $12 million more each year over the next 10 years than they currently get from public-land earnings, said a spokesman from the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Income from the state's public lands is now divided among the public schools, universities, penal institutions, and state-capital buildings, with public schools receiving about half the total.
In 1981, about $60 million of state-land revenue contributed to a $2.7-billion state budget for schools; the land returns were down $20 million from 1980. This steep decline in income, said state officials, reflected the sharp downturn in the timber and construction industries, which depressed the timber sales that account for most of the public-land revenues. (The depression in the state's economy ultimately forced Gov. John Spellman to order a 10-percent cut in spending for schools last October.)
To soften the impact of the decline, the commissioner of public lands is seeking to decrease the state's economic dependency on timber by diversifying public-land holdings.
Commissioner Brian J. Boyle said, however, that the state is not interested in keeping the land lying in residental zones, but would like to sell or exchange it for commercial property of equal value. And because state policy since 1969 has prevented the outright sale of public lands, one of the four measures was drafted to change that policy and to allow the sale or exchange proposed by Mr. Boyle.
The four measures would also:
Amend the state constitution to reduce zoning restrictions that tend to lower the market value of the land;
Allow the state's Natural Resources Board, made up of the governor, the commissioner of public lands, the state superintendent of public instruction, and two university deans, to negotiate the terms of a contract when public land is sold. Present law provides that the lands must be sold at a public auction, which officials say is an impractical way to deal with complex commercial transactions.
Allow the department of natural resources the choice of issuing leases at a public auction or negotiating the leases, directly, according to rules set up by the resources board.
Washington has already leased some of its urban and suburban lands to commercial enterprises, including a restaurant, apartment-house complexes, and residential developments. But, "we've taken some lumps on these," admitted Robert B. Harper of the Department of Natural Resources. "If we'd had a plan we could have been better managers."
Mr. Harper said the department does not want to diminish the land base by selling off urban and suburban properties without finding replacement land of equal commercial value. "That would just make schools more dependent on timber," he reasoned.
Anthony H. Anderson, the Spokane consultant who conducted the study identifying the 120,000 acres of state-held transition lands, praised Washington for being "forward looking" in wanting to keep its land base. A great many states have either sold off their urban lands or are simply holding them, with no thought of managing them to increase income, he said.
Only one other Western state, Arizona, has enacted such a plan. Approved last September, the Arizona plan was set up to manage the half-million acres of public land around the urban centers of Phoenix and Tucson.
"Land base is one of the few things that has kept up with or ahead of inflation," said Mr. Anderson.
"If it continues to keep up with inflation and you can lease it out at 12-percent interest; that's 12 percent above or beyond inflation, without even selling the capital base."
'Lots of Questions'
If such lands are sold off and the cash reinvested, he said, "not only does the price have to reflect inflationary increases, but the return on that base has to continue to keep up with inflation." Both Mr. Harper and Mr. Anderson say they are not aware of major opposition to the measures, but legislators are still contacting them with "lots of questions."