Commission, WNF at odds on land deals

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2006

Who owns Lawrence County land — and how much they own — is the issue in a letter Lawrence County officials are sending to the area’s elected officials in Washington, D.C. and Columbus.

The Lawrence County Commission wants the right to approve all land purchases by the U.S. Forestry Service in the county in the future. They’re asking the area’s state senators and representatives and U.S. senators and representatives to support their idea.

On Tuesday during the commission’s regular weekly work session, Wayne National Forest Ironton District Ranger Gloria Chrismer told the commissioners that the WNF is purchasing a portion of the 3,589.9 acres of Lawrence County land that was purchased within the last three years by the Nature Conservancy.

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She said the land is on the west side of State Route 93 north of the Dean State Forest in the northern part of the county.

The forest service will purchase, at fair market value, all the land that can be purchased for $552,000, which is the amount given to the forest service for land acquisition this year in Lawrence County.

Chrismer said that amount should allow the forest to purchase approximately 600 acres.

The rest of the land will be purchased in phases in the coming years. Commissioners contended that the forest service already owns enough Lawrence County land as it is.

“They already own almost a third of the property here,” Lawrence County Commissioner Jason Stephens said.

“Think what that money could do if, instead of buying more land, they put that money into parts of the forest they already own and people use.”

Stephens said it is possible this land could be developed for commercial use in the future.

Chrismer disagreed. She said much of the land is reclamed strip mine land that does not have a high value at this time.

Much of it does not have utilities and to install electric lines and water lines would be extremely expensive. Chrismer also said she is surprised the commission is taking this action now.

“This is not something new. We’ve discussed this with them before. We met a couple of years ago with at least a couple of the commissioners and we took them out there to see the land. We went on a ‘show-me’ tour and at that time we asked for their support.”

Chrismer said the forest services does take land off the tax rolls with such purchases but the federal government does give Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILT) monies to the county each year that is equal to the amount it would receive for agricultural lands, and that is what this land is considered.

“If there is a future need for the land, and I don’t mean a pie-in-the-sky thing, but a real need, a definite plan with funding behind it then the forest services can exchange lands.

“We did that once with the Ironton Country Club and we did that when the Rock Hill School District built new schools,” she said.

Land acquisition by the forest service has been a bone of contention between forestry officials and some local government and business leaders.

After the Nature Conservancy began purchasing the Washington Township lands in late 2003, local leaders began a study of potential uses for rural land.

The study included several local public meetings that allowed concerned citizens, forestry officials and area leaders to voice their thoughts on rural development.

The commission and other entities have gone on record before opposing additional WNF growth.