Massachusetts Land Trusts Breath a Collective Sigh of Relief: The SJC Rules That There Is No Requirement to Promote Public Access For Land to Be Tax-Exempt

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled that land trusts or other charities which own and preserve conservation land may take advantage of a state tax exemption on such land even if they do not affirmatively encourage public access to the land. The land trusts have dodged a potentially major bullet.

The New England Forest Foundation owns a 120-acre forest parcel in Hawley. The Hawley Board of Assessors ruled that the property was not tax-exempt, because the NEFF did not “occupy” the land in furtherance of its charitable purposes. The Appellate Tax Board agreed. The SJC did not, and reversed. The SJC acknowledged that:

The dominant use of the property must be “such as to contribute immediately to the promotion of the charity and to participate physically in the forwarding of its beneficent objects.”

However, the SJC concluded that this did not require that NEFF encourage public use. Instead, it found that the exemption statute:

does not require imposing an affirmative duty to promote and facilitate public access on conservation lands in order to satisfy the occupancy requirement. To impose this sort of duty exceeds the scope of the inquiry at the core of [the statute’s] occupancy requirement. Additionally, in certain circumstances, such as in the case of a particularly fragile habitat or ecosystem, a public access requirement could operate to thwart the very conservation objectives an organization is seeking to achieve.

Noting that NEFF did not actually exclude the public, and given that NEFF’s charitable purposes “also involve the conservation of forest land through sustainable forestry practices along with the enhancement of environmental quality through the promotion of improved water quality and biodiversity,” the SJC found that NEFF’s use of the land satisfies the exemption criteria.

In short, a charity whose purposes include preservation or conservation is entitled to a tax exemption as long as it in fact preserves and conserves; it doesn’t have to open a ski area.

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