Massachusetts case could roil land trusts in New York City

February 05, 2014 02:29PM

A number of cases aiming to exempt land trust-owned properties from tax obligations could impact how such situations are handled in New York City and elsewhere in the U.S.

The New England Forestry Foundation, a non profit that owns 120 forested acres in Hawley, Mass. and has paid reduced property taxes on the parcel for a decade, is suing the town for refusing a full tax exemption. The nonprofit argues it deserves the exemption as the land provides a public good — the measure most states use to determine whether a spot of land isn’t obligated to pay. Similar cases in Maine and New Mexico have pitted land trusts against local governments.

“The ramifications are quite large,” Jessica Owley, a SUNY Buffalo Law School professor and expert on conservation land trusts, told the Wall Street Journal. “We don’t have a lot of case law on this. No matter who wins here, you are going to see more cases of this type.”

Central to such cases, which are increasingly common as land trusts look to reduce property costs and strained local governments aim to beef up their bottom line, is whether the trusts can prove the land in question provides a benefit to the community. In Hawley’s case, the New England Forestry Foundation argued that it is preserving the environment by leaving the land untouched — a public benefit. But town officials disagreed, noting that because the land has not been used for any other purpose besides harvesting firewood, it serves no public benefit. [WSJ]Julie Strickland