As an update to our previous post, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) today reversed the Appellate Tax Board (ATB) and held that forest land owned by a private conservation organization should be exempt from local property taxes.
The decision in New England Forestry Foundation, Inc. v. Board of Assessors of the Town of Hawley (SJC-11432) will come as relief to nonprofits, which feared hefty tax bills if the SJC had endorsed the ATB’s strict approach to private conservation land.
The SJC held that 120 acres of forest land owned by New England Forestry Foundation, Inc. (NEFF) in the Town of Hawley was eligible for the charitable exemption from property taxes provided by M.G.L. c. 59, § 5, Clause Third. The ATB previously upheld the Town’s denial of a tax exemption for NEFF, finding that a lack of convenient public access to the NEFF property and the limited nature of NEFF’s forestry education activities were evidence that NEFF’s forest land did not benefit the public at large or relieve the government of any burdens.
In reversing the ATB, the SJC noted that NEFF’s ownership of the land for conservation purposes was charitable in nature and relieved the government of its burden to safeguard natural resources and environmental quality. Moreover, the SJC held that where public access to private conservation land is not necessary to further an organization’s charitable purpose, an organization is not required to promote public access in order to maintain its tax exemption.
Submitting amicus briefs on behalf of NEFF were the Nature Conservancy, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, The Trustees of Reservations, the Massachusetts Land Trust Coalition, Inc., the Land Trust Alliance, Inc., the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions, Inc., and The Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts, Inc. The Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers submitted an amicus brief in support of the Town of Hawley.
You can read the full SJC decision here.