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SJC rules conservation lands are tax exempt

The Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday that conservation land in Massachusetts cannot be taxed, a blow to cash-hungry cities and towns that saw some forests and meadows as potential sources of revenue.

The unanimous decision was a victory for groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which worried that if they were forced to pay taxes, it could threaten their ability to buy new land and protect it from development.

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The case was closely watched by local officials and conservation organizations across the country, which saw it as an important test of the tax-exempt status of thousands of acres of protected land.

Conservation groups celebrated the ruling, saying it affirmed that they qualify for a charitable tax exemption because the natural habitats they guard provide a public benefit.

“We’re, of course, pleased,” said Frank Lowenstein, deputy director of the New England Forestry Foundation, which brought the case in response to a tax bill it received. If the ruling had gone the other way, “it would have been a huge change to the landscape of Massachusetts and the viability of conservation charities,” Lowenstein said.

Geoffrey Beckwith — executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which represents cities and towns — called the decision disappointing and said it could financially burden many communities with large tracts of conservation land.

“This decision will essentially mean that these communities will not be able to collect even minimal property tax from many parcels,” he said. “This will certainly have a great impact.”

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The case began modestly enough, when the Forestry Foundation refused to pay a $173 property tax bill that officials in Hawley sent it for a 120-acre parcel of woodland that the group owns in the small town an hour north of Springfield.

The group’s dispute with the town revolved around how publicly accessible and active the land needed to be to qualify for a charitable tax exemption.

The foundation bought the land, known as the Stetson-Phelps Memorial Forest, from a couple in 1999 and opened it to the public, posting a sign that read, “We invite respectful public visits.”

But Hawley officials had argued that the Forestry Foundation did little to encourage public use of the woods and that it did not qualify as tax-free.

The Forestry Foundation, backed by other conservation groups, argued that preserving the land for public use should be sufficient to exempt it from taxes. They said clean air and green space are a public benefit worthy of a tax exemption.

The SJC decision sided with the foundation.

The court said the organization took steps to make the woodland available for hiking and hunting and for use by a snowmobiling club. The SJC also said the foundation served the public by protecting the woods from development.

“By holding land in its natural pristine condition and thereby protecting wildlife habitats, filtering the air and water supply, and absorbing carbon emissions, combined with engaging in sustainable harvests to ensure the longevity of the forest, NEFF engages in charitable activities of a type that may benefit the general public,” Justice Francis X. Spina wrote.

Such a robust environmental defense of the value of conservation land was significant, said Jessica Owley, a professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School, who specializes in property and land conservation.

“One of the things about this case that scared people is that the town was questioning whether land conservation was a charitable purpose, whether it really helped people,” she said. “What’s great about this opinion is the Massachusetts court looked at it and said public purposes and charitable purposes can be a lot broader than that.”

Rosemary Crowley, a lawyer for the Hawley Board of Assessors, said the court ruling could allow unscrupulous land owners to claim tax-
exempt status merely because their land is walled off from development.

“The fear is that people will game the system to park land tax-free and leave it open to later development,” she said.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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