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Coos County of Oregon v. Bernhardt

United States District Court, D. Oregon

November 5, 2019

DAVID BERNHARDT, in his official capacity as United States Secretary of the Interior; U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, acting by and through the BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT, Defendants.


          Michael J. McShane United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Coos County of Oregon brings this action for declaratory and injunctive relief under the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 706(1).[1] Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated the Coos Bay Wagon Roads Act (“CBWR Act”), 43 U.S.C. §§ 2621 and 2622, by repeatedly refusing to conduct an appraisal of the Coos Bay Wagon Road Grant Lands (“CBWR lands”). Pl.'s Compl. ¶¶ 1-2, ECF No. 1. Plaintiff alleges that an appropriate appraisal of the CBWR lands would result in more federal revenue being allotted to the county. See Id. ¶ 23. Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiff's claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing that Plaintiff cannot meet the redressability prong of Article III standing.[2] Defs.' Mot. 1, ECF No. 11. Because Plaintiff has alleged a procedural injury and demonstrated a possibility of redress sufficient to establish procedural standing, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 11) is DENIED.


         The CBWR lands are federal lands within the Oregon counties of Coos and Douglas. Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 1. Defendants oversee the management of these lands as proscribed by the CBWR Act and Oregon & California Railroad Lands Act (“O&C Act”), 43 U.S.C. § 2601. Defs.' Mot. 2-3. The O&C Act provides that a percentage of the revenue from O&C lands shall go to the counties where the lands are located, but a similar provision does not exist for the CBWR lands. Id. at 3. Therefore, Congress enacted the CBWR Act to allow for payments in lieu of taxes to counties where the CBWR lands are located. Id. The CBWR Act requires a committee to appraise and assess the lands as it would “other similar properties” within the counties. 43 U.S.C. § 2621. The appraisal committee consists of one person representing the Secretary of the Interior, one person representing the two counties, and a third person satisfactory to the Secretary of the Interior and the counties. Id. Payments are to be based on the “same rates of taxation as are applied to privately owned property of similar character” within the counties. Id. An appraisal is required at least once every ten years. 43 U.S.C. § 2622.

         The State of Oregon created the Oregon Forestland Program in 2003, which assigns Forest Land Classifications to privately owned forestlands in Western Oregon and, in turn, dictates the tax rate for forestlands. Defs.' Mot. 3; see ORS §§ 321.207, 321.210.

“Forestland” means land in western Oregon that is being held or used for the predominant purpose of growing and harvesting trees of a marketable species and has been designated as forestland or land in western Oregon, the highest and best use of which is the growing and harvesting of such trees.

ORS § 321.257(2). Eight land classifications qualify for specially assessed values. ORS § 321.210(2). The Oregon Department of Revenue assigns the classifications. ORS § 321.348(1).

         The CBWR lands have not been appraised in the last ten years. Pl.'s Compl. ¶ 15. Plaintiff has repeatedly attempted to convene an appraisal committee with Defendants. Id. ¶ 16. Defendants continue to maintain that under the Oregon Forestland Program, the CBWR lands meet the criteria for specially assessed forestlands and therefore an appraisal is no longer necessary. Id. ¶ 17. In 2008, the Oregon Department of Revenue weighed in on this issue, telling Defendants that because federal lands are exempt from ad valorem taxation[3] it is the Department's position that the CBWR lands are not entitled to forestland special assessment under state tax laws. Pl.'s Compl. Ex. 4, at 4. Despite this guidance, Defendants determined that the CBWR lands qualified as forestlands under the Oregon Forestland Program and made payments based on specially assessed values. Pl.'s Compl. ¶¶ 17, 23. In 2017, Coos County Assessor Steve Jansen notified Defendants that the Coos County Assessor's Office disqualified the CBWR lands as forestlands. Pl.'s Compl. Ex. 3, at 1. Mr. Jansen explained that the CBWR lands no longer qualified for special assessment under the Oregon Forestland Program because the federal government managed large portions of the lands in ways that did not meet the criteria for forestland classification. Id. at 3.

         Defendants argue that state laws regarding land classifications do not apply to the CBWR lands. Defs.' Reply 2, ECF No. 17. Rather, they assert that the O&C Act classifies the CBWR lands as “timberlands, ” qualifying the lands for forestland special assessment in the same manner that private properties of similar character would be taxed. Id. at 2-3. Defendants also argue that the CBWR lands meet the statutory definition of “forestland” under ORS § 321.257(2): “land in western Oregon, the highest and best use of which is the growing and harvesting of such trees.” Id. at 3-4. Defendants conclude that the rate for payments is certain and no appraisal is necessary. Id. at 2.


         A motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) challenges the subject matter jurisdiction of a federal court. A federal court has no jurisdiction to resolve any claim for which a plaintiff lacks standing. Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498 (1975); Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). Standing requires a plaintiff to show she has “suffered some actual or threatened injury as a result of the putatively illegal conduct of the defendant, and that the injury ‘fairly can be traced to the challenged action' and ‘is likely to be redressed by a favorable decision.'” Valley Forge Christian Coll. v. Ams. United for Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 472 (1982) (citations omitted). “The party invoking federal jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing these elements.” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561.

         There is, however, a lower bar where procedural rights are concerned. “[A] person who has been accorded a procedural right to protect his concrete interests can assert that right without meeting all the normal standards for redressability and immediacy.” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 572 n.7. To satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement for procedural standing, a plaintiff must allege that (1) the defendant violated certain procedural rules; (2) these rules protect plaintiff's concrete interests; and (3) it is reasonably probable that the challenged action will threaten her concrete interests. Nuclear Info. and Res. Serv. v. Nuclear Regulatory Com'n, 457 F.3d 941, 949 (9th Cir. 2006).

         When a plaintiff has shown a procedural injury, she has a lesser burden regarding the causation and redressability prongs of Article III standing. Salmon Spawning & Recovery All. v. Gutierrez, 545 F.3d 1220, 1226 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Lujan, 504 U.S. at 572 n.7). A plaintiff asserting procedural standing “need not demonstrate that the ultimate outcome following proper procedures will benefit [her]” to satisfy redressability. Cantrell v. City of Long Beach, 241 F.3d 674, 682 (9th Cir. 2001). Rather, a plaintiff need only show that “the relief requested-that the agency follow the correct procedures-may influence the agency's ultimate decision of whether to take or refrain from taking a certain action. This is not a high bar to ...

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