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Kean/My Turn: Could be a costly decision

As an admittedly biased observer — I am a recently-elected Hawley assessor who is sympathetic to Hawley’s side in the current Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court case involving the local property tax status of the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) — I have to admire the brilliant public relations strategy being employed by NEFF in the interim since the case was argued before the high court, even as I abhor its potential results.

For if NEFF prevails in its position, then all a land trust or other such entity will have to do to avoid local property taxes altogether is to organize itself as a charitable entity and declare that its charitable work involves leaving the land it owns — tax-free — “well-enough alone.”

Just like any private landowner, currently all a land trust has to do to enjoy a tax reduction is to qualify in one of the commonwealth’s “chapter lands” programs, generally for agriculture or forestry. To do that, the trust has to maintain the land as capable for an agricultural purpose (growing hay, for example) or submit and follow a forest management plan developed with the aid and approval of a state forester.

But if the court turns Hawley’s case down, then any trust that adds the charitable designation can enjoy tax-free status for doing nothing.

Given the stakes, is it any wonder that organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts Audubon Society submitted amicus briefs in favor of NEFF’s appeal? A decision favoring NEFF (ie., a reversal of the Appellate Tax Board’s original finding in favor of Hawley’s position) would provide them all with new avenues for avoiding taxes. In my opinion, they’re supporting it because they have so much to gain.

Here’s the problem: Let’s say the opposition prevails and more and more trusts take advantage of the new loophole. Then more and more land in each western Massachusetts town goes off the tax rolls. Because of Proposition 2½, the towns are required to balance their budgets every year. With fewer acres and structures to tax, this automatically drives tax rates higher, resulting in higher taxes, which will have to be borne by those of us who remain eligible for taxation.

Over time, property values will go up proportionally, which might seem like a good thing. However, because only large corporations and those who are very affluent will be able to afford to buy and live on the land, this change will put the community fabric and lifestyle of western Franklin and eastern Berkshire counties as we know them as deep underwater as the towns that currently lie at the bottom of the Quabbin Reservoir.

And who knows? Maybe some of our lower-population-density towns will go bankrupt in the process.

Like I said, my view is biased by the fact that I’m an assessor. As such, I have to think about how changes in tax revenues affect our towns and our citizens. I was not a member of the Hawley Board of Assessors when the action against NEFF began, but I applaud that board’s initiative and support its goals, as should all Hilltown residents and taxpayers who value what we have.

These are my private views, and do not necessarily represent the policies or positions of the current Hawley Board of Assessors or the Town of Hawley.

Rick Kean is a Hawley resident.

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