Photo by George Lauby
Mike Groene, at right, conducts the Town Hall. (click on image to enlarge)
About 50 farmers and ranchers seem inclined to organize an effort – asking NCORPE to sell their land for private use.NCORPE – the Nebraska Cooperative Republican Platte Enhancement Project – owns more than 15,000 acres of land in southern Lincoln County. By agreement with Kansas, NCORPE pumps water from below ground toward the Republican River.
The aim is to compensate farmers in Kansas for Republican River water that does not pass through the state.
Those who attended a Town Hall meeting Monday in Wallace with Sen. Mike Groene, discussed putting a formal proposal before the NCORPE board of directors to sell the land.
The land itself is mostly idle and used for wildlife habitat, which has hurt the area economy. When the land was farmed, it generated about $14 million a year, Groene said. NCORPE, claiming an exemption for public use, pays no real estate taxes. Property taxes from the land contributed about $135,000 a year to the Wallace schools, as well as around $365,000 for other entities such as the North Platte schools, cemetery and fire districts, according to county records.
The Lincoln County Assessor and the Board of Equalization have tried to assess taxes on the land at the reduced value of non-irrigated land, but NCORPE appealed that to the state tax equalization board.
The state board, known as the Tax Equalization and Review Commission, held a hearing on the dispute in 2015, but put off a decision until a few days ago, finally deciding in NCORPE’s favor.
Groene said selling the land makes sense, although it might only bring about 25% of the value of irrigated land.
He said putting the land in private hands would help the economy, generate tax revenues and limit the expansion of government ownership.
Groene said the NRDs assert that the land cannot be separated from the water below, but he said that is a common law principle, not spelled out in state law. And, he said the principle is already excepted when a municipality installs a well outside the city limits. Municipalities pump the water into the town, but don’t own the land, he said.
Groene also pointed out that NCORPE has sold a few quarter-sections on the edges of its immense tract, and retained the water rights.
“No one has told me why the land can’t be sold,” Groene said.
He suggested farmers and ranchers put the question to members of the NCORPE board, as well as the boards of the Natural Resource Districts that comprise NCORPE.
Groene has sponsored a bill in the Legislature, LB 218, to force the land to be sold, but the bill remains in committee.
Somewhat surprisingly, NCORPE General Manager Kyle Shepherd didn’t object to the idea.
“I think the majority of the (NCORPE) board would prefer it to be sold,” Shepherd told the Bulletin after the meeting. “I think they would be glad to hear a proposal.”
Kurt Olson, who owns cattle feeding operations in Lincoln County, offered to set up a meeting in a couple weeks, get a consensus and select an attorney to address the NCORPE board.