Mendocino Redwood Co. is challenging a tiny fire protection district’s new parcel tax, calling it unlawful.
It’s one of two fronts on which the timber corporation is wrangling with the 44-square-mile Albion-Little River Fire Protection District, which has about 3,000 residents along the Mendocino County coast. The other battle is over the company’s practice of poisoning unwanted trees and leaving them to decompose in forests, which critics say creates a fire hazard.
The tax — approved by 83 percent of district voters last year and set to begin generating revenue in January — is aimed at keeping the struggling volunteer fire department afloat and spreading the cost of fire protection among residents and owners of timberland within the fire district’s boundaries.
“We have calls for both fire and injuries” on commercial timberland, said fire district board President Chris Skyhawk.
The tax, known as Measure M, is expected to generate about $105,000 annually, raising the district’s yearly budget to about $250,000, he said.
Of the anticipated new tax revenue, about $34,000 would be paid by the owners of industrial timberland in the district. Mendocino Redwood owns the majority of that land, followed closely by the nonprofit Conservation Fund, Skyhawk said.
But Mendocino Redwood Co. says the local tax is unlawful because timber properties fall under the jurisdiction of the state firefighting agency, Cal Fire, not local fire authorities. Mendocino Redwood, along with a sister business, owns 438,000 acres in Mendocino, Humboldt and Sonoma counties.
“The county should not issue tax bills to MRC for its commercial timberland under Measure M. If the county fails to comply with the law, MRC intends to pay the levied taxes under protest,” seek a refund under the California tax code “and pursue available legal remedies,” states a letter to Mendocino County officials and signed by Stephen Johnson, one of the Ukiah-based attorneys representing the company. Mendocino Redwood sent a second letter to the fire district, seeking to appeal the tax.
The attorneys and Mendocino Redwood president Mike Jani declined to comment on the tax appeal.
It’s unusual for local fire departments to tax timberland. Skyhawk was unaware of any other fire district with a similar tax, but he said it makes sense.
The fire district’s local firefighters and other personnel are often the first to respond to fires and medical calls for injured timber workers in the area, Skyhawk said. Fires on nearby timberland may not be the district’s responsibility, but letting a fire burn for longer than necessary ultimately endangers both the forest and district residents, he said.
“We don’t say, ‘That’s on land that’s not part of our assessment structure,’ ” Skyhawk said.
The costs of fighting fires are increasing and the agency needs to find more funding if it is to remain effective, he said. District officials didn’t think it was fair to lay the cost entirely on residents.
“We’ve been creative and perhaps somewhat bold with Measure M,” Skyhawk said.
The district will be considering the timber company’s appeal at its meeting on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, a fire district-initiated challenge to Mendocino Redwood’s tree-poisoning operations — commonly called “hack and squirt” — is apparently gaining momentum.
About 30 volunteers are now collecting signatures for an ordinance that would proclaim the dead trees a nuisance, said Els Cooperrider, campaign coordinator for Citizens for Fire Safe Forests.