WASHINGTON — Depending on who one believes, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, either seeks a huge windfall for a campaign donor or merely wants to end unfair torture of him by the federal government.
Both sides argued their case Thursday before Hansen's House Resources Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands. But the Clinton administration joined those critical of Hansen.
Pete Culp, assistant director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said Hansen seeks an end-run around normal land purchase processes to benefit James Doyle, who could reap $15 million to $50 million on land he owns near St. George.
Culp said Hansen's bill "provides preferential treatment to one landowner" and orders payments that "are considerably in excess of the appraised values on other adjacent properties."
Doyle, a former land developer, said unfair BLM shenanigans have made him sell almost all he owns to hold on for a fair price on land the government wants to protect the desert tortoise. He said Hansen's bill would force the BLM to finish negotiations and help him avoid bankruptcy.
"To get to this sorry point, I have had to sell virtually all of my business assets, even my home. I am here today on borrowed money," Doyle testified.
Hansen is pushing a bill that would condemn and acquire for the government 1,550 acres near St. George that Doyle owns. It is the only land yet to be acquired in a preserve for tortoises, creation of which allowed development on other lands nearby.
Hansen's bill would give Doyle an immediate $15 million advance on the final payment. Meanwhile, it would give him and the BLM 90 days to agree on a fair price for the land, or then refer it to court to make that determination. On top of that final price, the bill awards past tax amounts and interest on the land to Doyle.
Hansen said that is fair, charging the BLM has unfairly dragged out negotiations on the land for 10 years. He said Doyle "has had the privilege of paying taxes and interest on this land but with no ability to develop or sell."
Culp, however, said Hansen is seeking preferential treatment and "provides for compensation above and beyond the benefits received by other landowners in previous acquisitions in this area."
He said part of the delay so far came because Doyle's family business departed from normal processes "and sought independent private appraisers who have used appraisal assumptions not consistent with BLM policies and procedures."
Doyle, however, charged that the BLM has tried all sorts of shenanigans to make him sell the land for less than its value.
For example, he said the BLM bought other smaller surrounding parcels of land first, knowing that delays were putting him in financial difficulty and made him more likely to sell for less.
He said the BLM withdrew a proposed trade with him for land near Leeds after months of work and just before closing the deal citing "archaeological reasons." He said that worsened his difficulties.
He said the BLM withdrew many other areas for possible land trades when the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was created and has been unwilling to identify any out-of-state land that might be traded.
Doyle said delays forced him to sell 349 acres of his land to the BLM to pay off creditors. "Reluctantly, I agreed to a closing where over $10 million worth of my real estate was sold to the government for less than half of its value."
Doyle added, "The federal government has effectively owned my land for the last 10 years. The land is fenced off and I have no access to it. Without having to actually purchase it, the Department of Interior enjoys all the benefits of ownership."
Hansen said it is "unbelievable" that the administration touts success of tortoise habitat conservation programs "but continues to leave property owners stranded with no options."
He added about his bill, "If the administration would treat property owners fairly, we could avoid such drastic measures."