Tiny land sales at Lake Tahoe under scrutiny

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Three tiny parcels of land that Washoe County turned over to a general improvement district at Lake Tahoe on the condition it remain publicly owned open space have been sold to private owners at bargain rates with other special benefits, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The lots on Tahoe’s north shore were among 87 parcels the county handed to the Incline Village General Improvement District five years ago, forgiving more than $800,000 in unpaid property taxes on the land in exchange for a promise to maintain them as open space.

The lots wound up on Washoe County’s delinquent tax rolls because the owners hadn’t paid property taxes for at least three years. Under state law, those parcels can be given to another government agency if that agency will use the land for a specific public purpose.

But after telling the county the land would be used for open space, a district official — without approval from the agency’s elected board or public notice — sold three parcels to private buyers, the newspaper reported.

Although the land can’t be built on, the parcels have value because owners of land in Incline Village get exclusive access to three private Lake Tahoe beaches and discounted skiing, golfing and hunting.

The three buyers dealt directly with Gerry Eick, the district’s finance director who carried out the transactions on behalf of the district, charging the buyers only the unpaid recreation fees plus interest associated with the parcels.

Eick and Jason Guinasso, the district’s general counsel, defended the sales but agreed the district needs a policy if it wants to continue selling parcels.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” Guinasso said. He said state law “doesn’t require us to do it, but when we’re managing public assets, we want to come up with a process that is fair and transparent.”

The district’s leadership has realized selling the land without a policy, without a public process and without board approval was a bad idea and they’ve put a moratorium on sales until a policy can be developed.

But they maintain it wasn’t illegal.

The sales price for two of the parcels was $14,095. The third went for $19,000.

None of the buyers had to pay the $11,059 in back property taxes forgiven by Washoe County when it transferred the land to the district.

The Incline Village General Improvement District is run by an elected board and provides town services such as water, sewer and trash collection. It also provides recreational services, including access to three private beaches. It owns the Diamond Peak Ski Resort, offering residents discounted lift tickets. It also owns two golf courses and provides hunting access in its wetlands.

Last week, the Washoe County district attorney told the district the land sales weren’t legal and must be undone, or the district must pay the county the back taxes.

“It appears that IVGID misrepresented its intent to maintain these parcels for public use and therefore the delinquent taxes should not have been waived,” Deputy District Attorney Michael Large wrote in a letter Friday to the district’s general manager.

The fact a district staff member could authorize a land sale without a public process and without board approval drew sharp criticism from Washoe County Commissioner Marsha Berkbigler, who asked the district attorney to review the sales.

“This land belongs to the taxpayers. It does not belong to a private citizen,” Berkbigler told the newspaper.

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Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com

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