A Northern Virginia utility needed to cross a small parcel of private land near the Dulles Airport access road. Utilities contact property owners and negotiate such easements every day, but in this case county property records showed that the land was owned by the Federal Aviation Administration, which apparently owns the entire 28-mile length of the access road, along with several separate adjacent parcels.
When the company contacted the FAA to work out the easement, to their surprise FAA replied that it did not own the land in question. Property records clearly showed otherwise, so the utility had to spend money on lawyers and paperwork to prove to the federal agency that it owned the land, before an easement could even be discussed.
Do you know how much land you own and where it is? The U.S. government does not. Not even an educated guess can be produced, despite years of congressional hearings, legislative mandates, and executive orders. Congress’s auditor, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has studied the issue and published several reports over the years, all with similar conclusions. Namely, the government has no idea how much property it owns, where it is all located, who manages it, what condition it is in, or how well it is being used.
Mind you, we’re not talking about national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, or BLM land. The “public lands,” as westerners understand that term, comprise some 650 million acres, a third of America, mostly in the West, and are fairly well mapped. Rather, we’re talking about real estate as most of us understand that term — buildings and vacant lots.
One friend in the real estate business recently looked for available riverfront lots in Washington, D.C., with the idea of developing high-end homes with private boat docks. Those are among the most valuable properties in virtually any major city, but my friend found out quickly that there would be no such developments in D.C. and many other cities for one simple reason. The federal government owns that land. The Maryland side of the Potomac River is federal property from downtown D.C. all the way to West Virginia. So are most of the remaining lands on both sides of the Anacostia River, along with the Potomac south of Washington all the way to Mount Vernon.
Valuable real estate like that sells by the square inch in major cities, not by the acre. Yet the government spends billions maintaining such property — lands for which there is often no stated government purpose. The National Park Service owns the land under RFK Stadium, no longer used by either the Redskins or the Nationals and subject to much debate about future uses. But unlike most such discussions in other cities, the U.S. government is the key player, though any resemblance to a park ended when it leased the area for a stadium almost 60 years ago.
The National Park Service also owns and maintains miles of city streets all over Washington, D.C., as well as dozens of buildings that are not occupied by government agencies. You might also be shocked at how much real estate the government owns in Denver, Grand Junction, Las Vegas, Seattle, Detroit, and hundreds of other cities.
Congress has tried for years to get a complete inventory of exactly what property the government owns, so intelligent decisions can be made about what is still needed, and what could be sold. Yet no department or agency can produce such an inventory. The Interior Department testified in 2005 that it used over 100 different property management systems, and 12 years later nothing has been done to consolidate them. The Pentagon reportedly has over 300 different land management processes, and cannot say how much property it owns. Nor can any other department, nor the General Services Administration (GSA), officially the government’s property manager.
The problem goes well beyond buildings, by the way. It is the same with real property (land and buildings), personal property (vehicles and equipment), and intellectual property (patents and copyrights). In all three cases, the federal government is a massive property owner, but cannot produce an accurate list of what it owns.
A 2014 GAO study would have embarrassed any other owner: government records showed some buildings in use that were, in fact, falling down and empty; and others labeled uninhabitable that were, in fact, occupied. GAO estimated there were 77,000 buildings government no longer used or needed. But there remains no process for identifying all of them, much less doing anything about it. They won’t tell you where all these buildings are, because they don’t know.
A version of this column appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.