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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Michigan Tax Break for the Rich?

Air Date: Week of

Gretchen Millich of Michigan Public Radio reports on the efforts of the Huron Mountain Club to save their land from development with the Open Space Preservation Act. These rarified acres on the shore of Lake Superior may be left undeveloped if approved for a tax break by the state. Some feel the Act is meant for struggling farmers, while others feel it is intended for land protection no matter the class of the land owner.


CURWOOD: Just about all of us have to worry about taxes, but there is one set of people that is particularly vulnerable: the owners of large tracts of open land anywhere near developing areas. Many states have passed laws that give a tax break to people who don't sell out to developers. Recently, an exclusive private club in Michigan's Upper Peninsula cited the state's Farmland and Open Space Preservation Act in a bid to save nearly $100,000 in real estate taxes. But as Michigan Public Radio's Gretchen Millich reports, local residents complain that would force them to subsidize a rich enclave where ordinary townspeople aren't even welcome.

(Footfalls and flowing water)

FARWELL: We're standing at the north end of Mountain Lake. Very frequently we see eagles here, and loons. Last time I saw 2 pairs of loons.

MILLICH: Frank Farwell stands on the rocky shores of Mountain Lake. Aside from members of the Huron Mountain Club, very few people have ever njoyad this view.

FARWELL: It's a lovely spot and of course there are a lot of hardwoods, particularly over there and on this side. The color in the fall is just breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking.

MILLICH: Farwell is president of the Huron Mountain Club and he's proud of this rugged wilderness on the shores of Lake Superior. Some of the largest trees in the country are found here, and rare and endangered plants and flowers grow undisturbed. Farwell says that's the legacy of the Huron Mountain Club.

FARWELL: There is nothing like this in the United States. Nothing. We've got unique property here, and only because those of us who care for it so much have preserved it.

MILLICH: The club was established over 100 years ago by a group of families of wealth and position. Members agreed at that time to leave the forest and lakes in their natural state. Today, descendants of those same families still enjoy the privileges of this private vacation spot. But Farwell fears that future generations may have to sell off some of the land to pay property taxes. To prevent this the club has applied for tax relief under Michigan's Farmland and Open Space Preservation Act, a tax break primarily sought by farmers in the lower peninsula who are under pressure to sell off their land to developers. The law gives them a tax break so it's to their advantage to keep their property undeveloped. Anne Wiodoe of the Sierra Club in Lansing supports such a tax reduction for the Huron Mountain Club.

WIODOE: Michigan has lost a large number of similar kinds of parcels to the Huron Mountain Club over the last decade or two, because hunt clubs and other associations that used to be able to afford these kinds of large, wild parcels no longer can. People just plain don't have the kind of resources or the kinds of interests that they used to have 50 or 60 years ago. So because it's unique, because of its location and because of the way it's been managed, it really needs to be maintained as a whole parcel.

MILLICH: Laws like Michigan's could ultimately serve as models for broader national programs, according to Laura Rose-Day of the National Wildlife Federation.

ROSE-DAY: Absolutely. The debate over how public and private benefits from land will be reconciled is a debate that certainly has swept the country, and often in unproductive fashion. And this is potentially, these kinds of programs are potentially a positive ground upon which people can come up with solutions to protecting biological diversity.

(Ambient conversation, clinking silverware)

MILLICH: Down the road at the bar at the Thunder Bay Inn, people in the local community think that talk about national models is only so much rhetoric. Karen Kiskis lives in Big Bay.

KISKIS: It's not meant for large, rich landowners to get a tax break. It's meant for people downstate whose land is being encroached by suburbs. Poor farmers, one-family farmers. I look at it as giving welfare to the 50 richest families in the state.

MILLICH: But Rick Jamieson of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs says it doesn't matter whether the owner is rich or poor. The law was intended to keep large tracts of land undeveloped.

JAMIESON: The government is full of tax breaks for the rich. There are many rich farmers that have benefited from this program as well as Federal programs. So I'm not sure this is anything different. Many large landowners tend to be wealthy, but that wasn't the point. It's not so much a subsidy of the rich as it's seen as a necessary tool to keep large parcels of land under one ownership.

MILLICH: Anne Wiodoe of the Sierra Club calls this concept the third wave of environmentalism. The idea that people will support a wilderness preserve with their tax dollars, knowing that in order to protect it they must never visit the area.

WIODOE: Understanding and providing for future generations is something that I think most people now realize is something we have to do with land. We don't just provide it for those who are here today. We provide it for future generations, and if we don't do it now that land will be gone.

MILLICH: Michigan's Department of Natural Resources is now reviewing the application, and says it appears to meet the basic criteria. A final decision is expected later this fall.

CURWOOD: That report from Michigan Public Radio's Gretchen Millich.



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