Easement list angers local family

Conservation group names ‘interested landowners’

— One local family says it has been added without permission to a list of property owners interested in granting easements to the state.

Nicole Kuchenbuch says her family’s Haeberle Ranch popped up on a list of landowners supposedly interested in selling their property to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

She said her family has no interest in selling the property, nor were they asked about it.

The list was taken from a map drafted by the Okanogan County Planning Office, which is conducting a study of the local economic impacts of state land acquisitions, Planner Perry Huston said. The map itself used data from the state Recreation and Conservation Office, which lists grant proposals on its website and identifies “interested landowners.”

Kuchenbuch said the Recreation and Conversation Office “intentionally misrepresented us, and many other Okanogan County landowners, without our knowledge or consent to gain access to federal dollars through the form of grant money.

“Again, our family is outraged after discovering our property and parcel numbers have been falsely included on their maps and lists. They even included the names of my grandparents, who have been gone for more than a decade, which left me questioning the source of their information,” she said.

Fish and Wildlife Regional Director Jim Brown said he has not seen the list of landowners, but he has seen the map. He said his agency’s own map is too small-scale to identify specific landowners, but the data used to generate Okanogan County’s map could have been as dated as 30 years old.

He doesn’t know where the Recreation and Conservation Office obtained the landowners’ names.

“They (the landowners) certainly aren’t on some sort of master target list that Fish and Wildlife is using,” Brown said. “It lends to the idea that there’s some big conspiracy theory… but when you try to nail it down, nobody can tell you where they got it or where the information came from.

“The facts are the facts, they are what they are. I don’t know how to respond, because I want to respond with facts to facts.”

Kim Sellers with the Recreation and Conservation Office said she didn’t see the family’s name on a list of projects or grant applications.

Before the Recreation and Conservation Office will accept a grant application, Sellers said the landowner has to willingly give their permission and sign a form signaling their knowledge of the process.

“We certainly do not want landowners to find out that they are being considered for purchasing their property in a roundabout way,” she said. “We have a form that we ask for a signature on, and if somehow that whole process has been circumvented we should know about that.”

Kuchenbuch is a member of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, which has been vocal in its criticism of state land purchases in the county.

“One thing is clear, whoever is behind all of this has very thin moral fabric,” Kuchenbuch said. “My family will not tolerate being used to further their parasitic existence and we are committed to getting to the bottom of it.

“If Okanogan County is going to survive we must collectively shine a light into the shadows and demand a stop to this kind of nonsense.”

She said the state returned to property owners once the grant money was obtained, pressuring them to sell their land. The state didn’t approach her family.

“I had already been vocal about my frustration with their unethical use of my family’s information so I think they knew better than to approach us,” she said.

Brown said Fish and Wildlife has not approached property owners in the six months he has been regional director and to his knowledge, the agency didn’t do that before.

“We don’t cold call people. We don’t knock on their door and say, ‘Hey, here we are and here’s some cash,’” he said. “That’s not how it’s been done, at least not recently.”

The Department of Fish and Wildlife agreed to a temporary moratorium on land acquisitions in Okanogan County last year, excepting negotiations already under way.

Some county residents have granted conservation easements to Fish and Wildlife, but he said it was voluntary.

The county’s economic study is in partnership with the National Association of Homebuilders, and Huston said he hopes to see some information from the association on Monday.

“We’re working on it literally as quickly as we can,” Huston said. “I guess it’s important to kind of keep the end result in mind.

“Many have criticized the commissioners for interfering with people wanting to sell their property, and that’s not the issue. The question is, ‘Should the taxpayers be buying land?’ And if they do, what are the repercussions short term and long-term?”

Meanwhile, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is conducting its own study. Brown said it was originally planned as a joint study, as agreed upon between his predecessors and the former county commissioners, but the county decided to do its own study in June.

Brown said results could come in sometime in February.

“Once the study comes back, then hopefully Okanogan County will obtain the results back for their independent study and we can sit down and have a conversation… and determine where to go based on what’s in that,” he said.

Some angry property owners made similar complaints last year upon seeing a Fish and Wildlife map printed in The Chronicle that showed about 8,000 acres the agency was interested in for various projects. In the June 6, 2012 edition, Commissioner Jim DeTro said some landowners didn’t know the state had its sights on their land until they saw the map.

The agency owns about 80,000 acres, or 2 percent of the estimated 3.4 million acres in Okanogan County. The county’s entire tax base is about $3.95 billion, and an estimated 25 to 28 percent of the county is privately owned.

The state provides payment in lieu of taxes on the land it owns, but the Legislature has cut funding in recent years so the county gets less than half of what it billed the state.

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