With so many unanswered questions surrounding the ownership of some 90,000 acres of Texas land along a 116-mile stretch of the Red River under review by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, landowners know one thing is certain — taxes.
Property tax estimates are currently being mailed out to Texans across the state, including landowners in Wichita, Clay and Wilbarger counties, despite the fact that some or all of their deeded land may belong to the BLM.
The BLM, the federal government’s trustee for nearly 250 million acres of public land, is updating its resource management plans in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. The agency has not fully surveyed the area for the plan and has made no decisions on what to do, but hundreds of landowners in Texas could be affected.
Elected officials in the area have spoken out recently about the uncertainties the situation has created for many of the voters in their districts.
“My constituents are concerned that their land is now not fairly valued because the federal government has made it a grey area as to whether they potentially have ownership of it or not,” state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, whose district includes two of the counties represented in the 116-mile stretch, told a crowd gathered last week along the Oklahoma state line.
Paul Bata, a cartographer in the Wichita County appraisal district, said officials were waiting on a resolution before considering any changes.
“We’re really not going to appraise any differently until something officially comes down the channels,” Bata said.
But that may take awhile. The BLM’s draft plan is due within two years, and it has said it will finalize the plan by 2018 at the earliest. In the meantime, all of the county appraisal districts that include the land in question are preparing their tax rolls like normal.
“If it’s deeded land and we have that as ownership, then we are going to assess them taxes,” said Gerald Holland, the chief appraiser in Clay County.
A phone recording at the Wilbarger County Appraisal District tells callers the office is closed while it updates its system in preparation of tax notices.
Landowners, many of whom were notified of the plan by the BLM in December, are also proceeding as usual, saying they'll pay their property taxes.
But in some counties, locals are taking extra caution in ensuring that the appraisal district has the proper paperwork on file documenting who owns their land.
“Had a couple landowners come in and say here is the patents and surveys when we purchased the land 30, 40 years ago,” said Bata, of Wichita County.
The tax implications for the counties are unclear. Bata said the majority of land in question in Wichita County is used for recreation and agriculture, not development, meaning the county tax base wouldn't likely take a hit if the BLM claimed the land.
It wouldn't be "as big of an impact on us as it would be for the people using it,” Bata said.
No local taxing authority has reached out to the Texas comptroller’s office — the state's taxing authority — or the BLM for clarification. In response to a request about the comptroller's plan of action, R.J. DeSilva, a spokesman for the agency, said county appraisal districts were responsible for answering questions about property or taxes.
Paul McGuire, a spokesman for the BLM, said it’s not clear what guidance the agency could provide on the taxing issue, but that all three counties “are in direct dialogue with BLM planners and managers throughout this process.”
Jim Malewitz contributed to this report.