County shelves habitat program

Hood River County has opted out of a state program to expand wildlife habitat until it has been fine tuned enough to generate more local interest.

On Monday, the County Commission decided to take advantage of the window to voluntarily pull out of the Wildlife Habitat Conservation and Management Program that will close on Jan. 1.

They made that move after learning that only two property owners had even inquired about signing up since the county came onboard in 1997.

“It doesn’t appear that Hood River County has too many people wanting to apply,” Sandra Berry, director of Records and Assessments, told the commissioners.

Since the Legislature will be working to clear up ambiguities in the program guidelines early next year, county officials decided it would make better business sense to save staff time and costs by joining at a later date instead of being obligated at this time.

They arrived at that decision after Berry said there were no biologists on her staff to meet the administrative rules for monitoring.

In addition, she said the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife was experiencing personnel and funding challenges that would also make it difficult for that agency to provide oversight.

She said Curry County recently completed a survey on the conservation plan and learned that eight of the participating 22 counties were opting out while they could, five were planning to become locked into the program, and nine had not yet made a decision.

In 1993 the Oregon Legislature set up the pilot WHCMP in Polk and Marion counties to provide landowners with a tax reduction for establishing more wildlife habitat.

In order to qualify, properties had to be zoned exclusive farm use or mixed farm and forest use. In 1997 the program was opened to counties statewide so citizens could develop plans that met a set list of criteria.

Berry said one advantage to participating in the program is that landowners no longer wanting to farm properties can retain their tax break by converting the grounds into a wildlife habitat.

For example, Berry said a property owner with a qualifying 10-acre parcel would gain a $370 tax break this year from setting up a wildlife habitat.

However, she said that savings could be offset by maintenance costs and fees to design a conservation plan that could include hiring a professional biologist.

In counties where the plan is adopted, a landowners submits a management plan to the district ODFW office and the county planning department.

The county then has 15 working days to provide the state agency with comments and approval or denial follows within 90 days. If implemented, the property holder may apply to the county assessor for open space use assessment of the parcel.

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