The Real Deal New York

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

  • Frank Lowenstein

    As Deputy Director of the New England Forestry Foundation I appreciate your coverage but want to correct three points. First as on all our properties, the land is in fact open for public recreation. Hiking, skiing and snowmobile trails extend through the property from the adjoining state forest. The town contention is that there is not sufficient access and recreational use, and that they should be the entity that gets to determine that, not the landowner. Second in accord with our charitable mission, on our properties we promote sustainable forestry via a forest management plan, pre- or post-harvest educational walks, and timber harvests that help sustain local mills. Finally forested conservation land, even when not used for recreation, helps clean our air and water, sustain streamflows in summer, reduce downstream flooding, remove excess carbon dioxide from the air, and attract fall foliage tourism to New England- all public benefits. Massachusetts statutes do not place access above these other benefits.