WASHINGTON – In July 2011, Betsy Harrison complained to a U.S. Forest Service official that the sale of a federally-owned building in her town of Mancos, Colorado had been delayed for three years. Harrison is the longtime president of the Mancos Valley Chamber of Commerce, and she had lobbied the federal agency to sell the site since it came on the market in March 2007.
The nine-member board of chambers had held its monthly meetings at the one-story, wood-and-stucco building, so she knew the roof and carpet were old and worn. As the years passed, the New Deal-era structure grew more dilapidated. Weeds sprouted up on the lot. The building’s yellow paint peeled.
Even worse, the vacant building sat at the intersection of U.S. Highways 160 and 184. For a mountain town whose motto (“Where the Old West Meets the New”) suggests its dependence on tourism, having an eyesore at its entrance could only discourage tourists and visitors.
“The first impression we give is that of a very depressed area – quite the contrary to the actual spirit of the town,” Harrison wrote in her letter to Mark Stiles, forest supervisor of the San Juan National Forest, which encompasses Mancos.
The reason for the delay of the sale was not a lack of private bidders, Harrison said in an interview; Patrick Kennedy, owner of Bison Glove Works, a Mancos-based glove and mittens manufacturer, had submitted a bid. The reason was excessive federal red tape and indifference. “Frankly, I fail to understand why there just cannot be a negotiated sale to the business that has been trying to purchase the building for these many years,” she wrote to Stiles.
Brad Dodd, a spokesman for the San Juan Public Lands Center, disputes Harrison’s explanation for the delay of the sale. “There were no takers in 2007, 2008, or 2009. We had a for-sale sign. We had a few bidders, but the bidding was not enough to get the appraisal value,” Dodd said. The businessman, Patrick Kennedy, was unavailable for comment.
Last December, a husband and wife team bought the building at 171 Railroad Avenue, turning it into a coffee shop and health food store. Selling the site had taken nearly five years. Yet the process had taken the Forest Service even longer. Concluding that “future use of the site is not anticipated by the district,” the agency’s facility master plan recommended selling the site in 2002.
The ten-year delay from the date of the Forest Service’s recommendation to the date of the sale may have been unusual. But a two or three-year delay is the minimum for selling an excess federal property or building, said Bethany Barron, a facility engineer for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region.
“There’s a long process we have to go through,” Barron said. Some excess federal sites on her list have been not sold in five or six years.
Last year, the Obama administration identified 14,000 federal properties or buildings as unused or underutilized. As The Observer reported last week, 243 are in Colorado.
Yet those numbers can be misleading, says the Obama Administration.
“The vast majority of properties do not have market value and are not likely to be sold,” said Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget. Instead of being put up for sale, properties on the federal list are slated for demolition or disposal, have been disposed or conveyed for public benefit, repurposed, or are no longer considered excess.
The number of federal excess sites available for sale is small. While the administration was unable to provide figures for the nation or state of Colorado, the General Services Administration lists one property for sale in the state.
The number of federal excess sites that have been sold is also small. Three sites have been sold in Colorado in the last three years, said Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin. Each property, whether it was in Fairplay or another in Mancos, was a former ranger-district house like the one on Railroad Avenue.
Like Betsy Harrison, federal officials say that bureaucratic red tape is a reason that selling excess government properties can take years. They identified other reasons for delays, such as insufficient government funding to work on multiple projects simultaneously, but said federal regulations have made selling properties more difficult.
“There are a lot of hoops we have to jump through to get rid of to convey these properties,” Barron said in an interview.
“The government has some 20 steps it must go through before moving a property to sale,” Mack said in a statement.
In interviews with OMB and Forest Service officials, they identified a handful of steps as the most important to undertake before selling a federal property.
One step is to comply with NEPA, the acronym for the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act. A federal agency that proposes selling a property is required to write an environmental impact statement on the likely affect the conveyed property will have on the environment. Community groups can comment on the proposal for as many as 45 days. After the comment period, the agency responds to comments and issues a new draft of its proposal.
Another step is to comply with environmental side assessments. As Segin of the Forest Service said, federal officials need to discover, “Does the property have asbestos or lead paint?” If traces of the contaminants are found, federal officials need to devise a plan to clean them up.
Other steps include complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1989 law that requires even commercial facilities to give access to the disabled; and the McKinney-Vento Act, the 1987 law that requires federal agencies to identify and make available surplus federal property to governments and agencies to help homeless people.
Barron of the Forest Service said that federal regulations are necessary. “It’s not always a bad thing,” she noted. But federal officials agree that reducing red tape is necessary. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed legislation in February that would create a federal commission to sell properties more easily.
Both Democrats and Republicans recognize that disposing of excess properties saves the government money primarily on maintenance costs; the Forest Service estimated it would save $919,000 if it did not need to maintain the Railroad Avenue building. Yet they also recognize that a revenue-starved federal government could reduce its deficit more quickly if it sold more excess properties.
As Harrison wrote in her letter to Stiles, “In this economy it seems like a win-win for all concerned if a transaction could be expedited.”