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Policy for donating land to Douglas County may change

The proposed change would limit the county's tax liability on donations it accepts.

Government Center in Superior
Government Center, Superior, Wisconsin. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

When the Douglas County Board accepted a donation of two parcels of land in the town of Superior from Cowett Wisconsin LLC, it revealed a flaw in the county’s policy for accepting land donations.

The policy adopted in 2012 was written to protect the county from problem properties and unexpected expenses.

The policy requires all real estate taxes and special assessments to be paid; all mortgages, liens and encumbrances to be cleared; and grantees to be unaware of environmental contamination or underground storage tanks at the time of transfer before officials determine whether accepting the donation is advantageous to the county.

While all taxes were paid on the undeveloped parcels adjacent to the Saunders State Trail at the time of the transfer, the county won’t be able to move the land to an exempt status until early next year.

“We’re going to get a tax bill next year for 2021 that the county will have to pay,” said county clerk Susan Sandvick during the Nov. 30 land and development committee meeting.

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One parcel is taxed under managed forest law and the other is taxed under forest crop law.
Sandvick proposed making a change to the county’s policy to ensure the county isn’t on the hook for taxes in the future.

In addition to requiring that all real estate taxes and special assessments are paid in full at the time of transfer, officials would require grantees to pay an estimate of current year real estate taxes and special assessments to the county.

Cowett Wisconsin LLC of Ithaca, New York, once owned 1,600 acres of land in Douglas County. All but 44 acres were sold, prompting the donation earlier this year, according to Fred Cowett, his father’s successor in the company.

Douglas County doesn't receive much donated land, Sandvick said, but this case made officials think about changing the policy. She said when a property is on the tax roll, it gets taxed for the entire year.

“Can we do a proration?” Supervisor Alan Jaques asked. “Would that make sense?”

Sandvick said she will do some additional research to determine if officials can prorate the taxes before the final wording of the policy change is presented to the Douglas County Board on Dec. 16.

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