Towns to legislators: Tax-exempt land unfair hit in western Mass.

 

Greenfield Recorder 09/17/2014, Page A01

By DIANE BRONCACCIO Recorder Staff

HAWLEY — It wasn’t just Hawley’s loss of $172 per year in tax dollars for 120 acres of forest in a state Supreme Judicial Court decision that sparkedTuesday’s meeting with state legislators, but a request for legislation to protect rural, tax-poor towns from being drained of too much taxable land on conservation grounds.

“We’re meeting here to convey our concerns about the longterm effects of that SJC ruling,” Assessors Chairman Henry Eggert told state Sen. Benjamin Downing and state Rep. Paul Mark. “It’s going to affect every town west of Worcester.”

Selectman Philip Keenan said the May 15 Supreme Court decision against Hawley has opened a “Pandora’s box” for nonprofit organizations to bypass the safeguards of state laws for land preservation by claiming their undeveloped land qualifies for a “charitable benefit” tax break because it helps conserve clean air and water.

Since 2002, the New England Forestry Foundation has owned the 120 acres of forest in Hawley, which had been placed under state Chapter 61 forest land, which reduces the land taxes, but the foundation sought a complete tax exemption, on the grounds that the land was performing a charitable benefit. An appellate tax court upheld Hawley assessors’ determination, that the land did not qualify for a charity exemption, because it was not occupied by the foundation, was not posted or advertised as public land, and does not do educational programs on the premises.

But the court decision now means almost half of all land in Hawley is completely tax-exempt — about 19,000 acres — with 72 percent of that tax-free land owned by the state itself. Another 14,140 acres of forest and farmland get tax breaks on their development rights through state Chapter 61. That leaves only 14 percent of Hawley’s land eligible to pay the full town tax rate.

Deerfield Assessors Chairman John Coderre, who was among the audience, said the erosion of taxable land isn’t limited to land conservation groups, but includes other types of nonprofit organizations. “Deerfield Academy, in my town, is buying up thousands of dollars worth of valuable property and putting up faculty in a house on tax-free land,” he said.

Alice Wozniak, an assessor in Heath, assistant assessor in Colrain and secretary of the Franklin County Assessors Association, said Heath has very similar issues. She pointed out that the Forestry Foundation had logged 30 acres in her town, driving over dirt roads that have to be maintained by the town Highway Department, with taxes paid by 700 residents.

“Unless you’re coming out of New York or Connecticut, with deep pockets, you can’t (afford to) live out here,” she said.

Hawley Special Council Rosemary Crowley said the court ruling was “sort of the last straw. The small towns get chipped away and chipped away. … The tax laws don’t reflect that (clean air and clean water) is a shared value we all should pay for.”

She said the charity tax exemption was originally intended for property that is “occupied” by the nonprofit — such as a school or hospital. But if a hospital owns additional unused land, she said, that doesn’t qualify for a tax break, under the old exemption laws. She said the new ruling could lead to people buying land, forming a nonprofit, then seeking a tax deduction for the land.

Crowley said the aim of the conservation groups that supported the court case was a ruling to “preserve small landholdings on Cape Cod,” that are too small to qualify for Chapter 61 inclusion.” But it’s going to have a major effect here,” she said.

Selectman John Sears said this is also an environmental issue. “We’re preserving clean air, water and carbon credits for everyone in the state. The cost of that shouldn’t just be shouldered on Hawley. In an age where we worry about global warming, if this is a goal everyone has, we shouldn’t be made to pay for it.”

Downing suggested filing legislation that might put some teeth into the state’s promise of payment-in-lieuof- taxes for state-owned forest land in small towns. He said the state isn’t obliged to make those payments if they perceive that the money is more needed for something else.

“We still have to deal with the possibility that someone can come in and grab a large piece of land that is left,” said Hawley Assessor Jason Valazquez.

Paul Mark said town officials have picked a good time to start this discussion, since new legislation is generally filed in January. “That gives us four months to do our homework.”

Linda Swadell of the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers said the state’s Legislative Committee will help, but she warned: “If you go afterPILOT and land trusts while leaving the schools and universities (tax status) intact, I would have a problem with that.”

Downing also said any proposed legislation should also benefit other parts of the state, if it is to get majority approval.

Hawley Assessors had a list of suggestions for ways to stabilize the tax base for towns with more than 20 percent of their land in tax-exempt ownership. Their ideas included:

∎ Requiring town meeting votes for additional acquisition of tax-free land.

∎ Consider legislation to require that any forestry group exempt from property taxes through a “charity clause, that doesn’t voluntarily pay PILOT or Chapter 61 taxes, be required to pay 10 percent of the gross value of any logs it harvests from the tax-free property.

∎ Require the state to pay PILOT payments on land owned by the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

∎ Improve PILOT valuations on state lands, with a minimum valuation of $1,000 per acre anywhere in the state.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277