S. 584 and H.R. 432, Betty Dick Residence Protection Act
STATEMENT OF STEPHEN P. MARTIN, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SENATE SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS OF THE COMMITTEE ON ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES, CONCERNING S. 584 AND H.R. 432, THE BETTY DICK RESIDENCE PROTECTION ACT.
JULY 28, 2005
Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to present the Department of the Interior’s views on S. 584 and H.R. 432, bills that would require the Secretary of the Interior to permit continued occupancy and use of certain lands and improvements within Rocky Mountain National Park.
The Department supports the general goal of S. 584 and H.R. 432 to allow the National Park Service (NPS) to resolve the merits of Mrs. Betty Dick’s desire to continue to live in the home inside Rocky Mountain National Park where she has lived for more than 25 years. Currently, the NPS does not have clear statutory authority to address these unique situations. In this testimony, we recommend certain amendments that will address both Mrs. Dick’s needs while recognizing the public’s purchase and ownership of this property.
As drafted, the pending legislation will only address Mrs. Dick’s unique situation. The Department also would be willing to work with the Committee to develop a broader solution, one that would provide NPS with clear statutory authority to address expiring reservations of use and occupancy in other situations with similar merit. We look forward to working with the Committee on this issue.
On April 14, 2005, the Department testified in opposition to H.R. 432 at a hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Parks. However, since that time, the Department has recognized the need for a broader solution in light of the several hundred reservations of use and occupancy that will expire over the next 10 years. Some of these existing reservations may present circumstances similar in merit to Mrs. Dick’s.
S. 584 and H.R. 432 would allow the continued use and occupancy of land within Rocky Mountain National Park by Betty Dick for the remainder of her life. The bills also state that the use and occupancy of the land would be governed by the conditions stated in the 1980 settlement agreement. Under these conditions, Betty Dick would be required to make an annual payment of $300 to the Secretary of the Interior and she would be prohibited from constructing any new structures on the property.
We regret the difficult situations that sometimes arise from the expiration of private use and occupancy leases located within National Parks. Mrs. Dick has been a model tenant in Rocky Mountain National Park. The park has always enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, a congenial relationship with her, and she is a familiar summer resident of the Grand Lake community opening her home to park staff and residents of the community alike. Park staff always feel welcome in Mrs. Dick’s home and have frequently stopped by to discuss this issue and other items of mutual interest relating to the park.
The situation that is the subject of these bills is the result of a commitment made by Mr. Dick, Mrs. Dick’s late husband, to vacate the property that he sold to the NPS 25 years ago. We understand and appreciate that this commitment has caused anxiety and stress for Mrs. Dick.
In 1977, the NPS purchased 66.5 acres from Marilyn Dick, the ex-wife of George Fredrick Dick for $214,000. The title company that handled the transaction overlooked the fact that Mr. Dick had retained a right of first refusal to purchase the property if his ex-wife ever decided to sell. Mr. Dick sued the NPS and his former wife in U.S. District Court. In a legally binding Memorandum of Settlement Agreement, signed by the parties in 1980, the NPS retained ownership of the property and agreed to lease approximately 23 acres to Mr. Dick and his heirs for a period of 25 years for $7,500, which equates to $300 per year. Mr. Dick died in 1992. His second wife, Betty Dick, survives him and now occupies the premises during the summer months. As the heir of Mr. Dick, Betty Dick had a leasehold interest in the property that expired July 16, 2005.
Mrs. Dick has contacted the NPS about extending her use and occupancy on a preferential basis for the remainder of her life. The NPS lacks the authority to grant such an extension either through existing leasing authority or special use permit authority. NPS does have the authority to issue leases competitively in most circumstances; issuing leases noncompetitively is limited to leases to units of government or non-profit organizations under certain circumstances. NPS is also is required to charge rent at least equal to fair market value, and the rent payment is kept by the park.
NPS cannot issue special use permits to extend use and occupancy for a life term under current authorities. However, NPS does have authority under certain circumstances to issue a two-year special use permit, with the possibility of re-issuance as long as the justifying circumstances apply, that would allow an individual with an expired use and occupancy to remain on the premises. Some of the criteria include situations in which NPS would be unable to remove the structure for a significant period of time (e.g., because of the need to complete planning requirement or the lack of available funds); the structure has or may have historical significance that would be endangered if vacated; or termination of residency would create undue hardship to the occupant (this provision requires the structure to be the primary residence of the individual). Special use permits also may only be issued for rent equal to the fair market value rent for the property, and the rent would be deposited in the U.S. Treasury. Under our current authority, we have offered Mrs. Dick such a special use permit that allows her to remain on her property for a period of time while NPS conducts a planning process to consider the options and determine an appropriate use for the property taking into account the interests of American taxpayers and park visitors, and park resources.
Mrs. Dick has verbally indicated that she will not accept the offer of a special use permit because it does not address her request for a life estate. A written offer has been sent to her that asks for her reconsideration of the NPS offer. While she has not yet responded to the request for reconsideration, she has accepted our offer to remain at her summer home for the remainder of this season as we await the outcome of the pending legislation. In accepting this offer, Mrs. Dick has stated her appreciation to park staff for allowing her to continue her normal routine for this summer.
The Department would support S. 584 and H.R. 432, if amended in a way that balances the merits of Mrs. Dick’s situation with the public’s interest in this property, which was purchased and is owned for the benefit of the American people. First, the Department would recommend that the bills be amended to reduce the acreage she occupies from 23 acres to approximately three to five acres that contain the house and outbuildings and her access to the Colorado River. The balance of the property would then be available for park visitors, including access to the river. This would require producing a new map, which we would be happy to provide to Mrs. Dick and to the public.
In addition, we suggest that Mrs. Dick’s continued occupancy of the property should be subject to fair market value rent, based upon an appraisal of the property, with the rent being retained by the park.
Finally, we suggest that the bill be amended to name Mrs. Dick as the sole beneficiary of the legislation, and that language be added to allow the termination of the lease in the event that Mrs. Dick is no longer able to use the property in the summer or is unable or unwilling to pay the annual fees. We would be happy to work with the Subcommittee staff to develop these amendments.
Throughout the country, there are many instances where the NPS has purchased private inholdings and permitted former landowners to remain on the property for a period of time, usually 25 years, through a “Reservation of Use and Occupancy.” The United States pays a reduced purchase price to account for the value of the retained use. This acquisition tool saves taxpayer dollars and allows the former owner to continue to enjoy the property for a set period of time. As we noted earlier, the Department also would like to work with the Committee to develop a broader solution – one that would provide the NPS with clear statutory authority to address the expiring reservations of use and occupancy in situations where there is merit. We look forward to working with the Committee on this effort.
That concludes my remarks. Mr. Chairman, I would be happy to answer any questions you or other members of the Subcommittee may have.