Landowner pulls out of tortoise reserve, maybe, after tax dispute

A desert tortoise browses in the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Washington County, Utah, photo undated | Photo by John Kellam, courtesy of Bureau of Land Management, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – Developer Bob Brennan has announced that property he owns within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve has been removed from use as “mitigation” for development in the rest of the county.

Statement by the Washington County Commission which was read at a regular commission meeting Tuesday | Statement courtesy of Washington County, St. George News | Click image to enlarge

Brennan made the statement to U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials in a letter dated Dec. 26, 2016, however, there are questions about what the statement means and what the consequences might be.

Brennan is one of a handful of property owners with land remaining in the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which was created for the protection of the desert tortoise and other species. The 62,000-acre reserve is governed by the Habitat Conservation Plan which allows development to continue in the rest of Washington County.

Brennan has removed his property from use as mitigation, but not from the reserve, he said. Mitigation is compensation in the form of tortoise habitat that is left alone in exchange for other habitat being disturbed or developed.

However, county officials believe Brennan’s statement takes his property out of the Red Cliffs Reserve and relieves them of the responsibility to facilitate a land exchange between Brennan and the Bureau of Land Management; Commissioner Dean Cox read a letter to that effect at a regular commission meeting Tuesday.

Brennan believes his action will prevent the renewal of the Habitat Conservation Plan agreement, which expired in March of 2016. However, county officials disagree.

“Frankly, I have no idea what they mean that the lands could not be used as mitigation unless it means they are withdrawing the land from the Reserve,” Eric Clarke, lead civil attorney for the Washington County Attorney’s Office, said.

“I’m not aware of the HCP ever discussing a private property owner with reserve property being able to withhold the land from being used as mitigation.”

Brennan said there should be a written agreement allowing his property to be used for mitigation, but no such agreement has been signed, he said.

Brennan believes removing his property from use as mitigation will prevent the renewal of the Habitat Conservation Plan, which could throw the county into “economic chaos” if a solution is not found.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating whether Brennan’s notice will impact the reserve, the Habitat Conservation Plan and the renewal discussions.

The HCP does allow for a landowner to withdraw from the Reserve,” Larry Crist said in an email. Crist is a field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service and a member of the Habitat Conservation Advisory Committee.

“However, if any development or other land uses on the property would result in take (death or destruction of habitat) of the desert tortoise the landowner would need to apply for an incidental take permit in order to avoid violation of the Endangered Species Act. Application for a permit requires an HCP, part of which must provide measures that would fully offset the impacts of the take to the maximum extent possible,” Crist said.

Brennan’s announcement came after a disagreement over taxation of his property within the reserve; the property has been taxed under greenbelt rates, the lowest available, Commissioner Victor Iverson said.

After acquiring property within the reserve from Jim Doyle in 2010, along with past tax debt, Brennan said he was “forced” to make an agreement to pay the county 5 percent of any land sale or exchange. But now, he wants out of the agreement.

“It’s not fair, to have to pay taxes and then give them 5 percent,” he said.

Brennan said he will have to pay roughly $400,000 to the county as a result of acquiring the Long Valley property, which is valued at around $8 million.

Brennan recently received 605 acres in Long Valley as part of an exchange for 83 acres; he still owns more than 700 acres in the reserve.

Read more: Habitat managers: Long Valley exchange completed, goats may help with fire prevention

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