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Hawley mulls effects of SJC ruling

HAWLEY — A state Supreme Court ruling in favor of a town tax-exemption for the New England Forestry Foundation — given on grounds that its 120-acre woodland in Hawley qualifies for a “charitable” exemption because it provides clean air, water filtration and absorption of carbon emissions — has prompted Hawley officials to look into legislative changes and to join with other low-population, highly forested small towns that have a hard time generating enough revenue to cover their towns’ operating costs.

Selectmen said the town’s options, after the Supreme Court ruling, are to work through the Legislature and join with other towns “that are also concerned that rulings like this one will further restrict their revenue sources.”

A week after the court ruling, selectmen have asked the Board of Assessors to “explore sources of support” within the state’s community of assessors, and to “organize a meeting of interested parties.”

Town Administrator Virginia Gabert has contacted the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers and “has received an immediate and supportive response,” according to selectmen.

When reached by phone, the association’s Executive Director Bob Ellia confirmed that he has been in touch with Hawley officials and that the latest ruling will be discussed at an executive board meeting and “will be a major issue within the association.”

Also, he noted, the assessors’ association filed a court brief, supporting Hawley’s position that the property did not qualify for “charitable” tax-exemption status because the forestry foundation had done nothing to promote public use of its forest land by way of hiking trails, public educational programs or even signs indicating the land was open to the public.

“We are going to look at this in great detail,” Ellia said. “It’s a little early to say exactly what we’ll do, because we haven’t studied everything. The initial concern we have is it may very well lead to more tax-exempt status (of land) without any more recompense for communities. We are just as concerned and disappointed as the town of Hawley,” he added. “When we have some idea of the kind of impact it can and will have, we will publish it in our newsletter.”

When asked, Ellia said it’s possible the group might look into future legislation, “but at this point, it’s too difficult to say.”

Last week the state’s highest court said the New England Forestry Foundation is entitled to a $172 “charitable” tax exemption because leaving the land in its natural state constitutes “charitable activities of a type that may benefit the general public.”

The foundation, which has owned the land since 2000, had already received conservation restriction tax breaks for that forest, under state Chapter 61 rules; but in 2009, it also asked the town for a charitable tax exemption. The Board of Assessors said ‘no,’ and their decision was upheld by the Appellate Tax Board in 2011.

“What we’re hoping to do is work with various assessing organizations and some forestry organizations as well, to do some legislative fine-tuning,” said Hawley Assessor Jason Velazquez. “It seems like there was a lot that wasn’t really thought of,” he said of the SJC decision. “I think many communities have been watching this case very closely. The families that live in this community, who pay taxes, are already at the breaking point. There are ways of addressing the needs of conservation while being mindful of the town’s fiscal realities.”

Velazquez said the Forestry Foundation does good work, but he worries that the court’s looser interpretation of what constitutes a charitable exemption could result in some groups exploiting this ruling.

“This issue arose ... out of a simple question: We know that you’re a charitable organization, but what are you doing with the land that translates to tax-exempt status? ... They never provided that information to us, and they never provided it to the Appellate Tax Board. Now, the SJC has decided the conservation groups can decide for themselves what constitutes ‘charitable’ purposes with no oversight whatsoever,” he said.

Gabert said much of the court’s ruling centered on the benefit enjoyed by the public because the land has been kept in a forest state. However, about 60 percent of the land within the town’s borders is already forest.

“As far as lessening the burdens of government, by providing carbon sequestration, fresh water and fresh air — in a town that is largely wooded? It only lessens the burdens of government in more urban environments,” she said. “It adds to the burdens of government in a small town with an annual budget just over $1 million and a population of fewer than 350 people.”

Assessor Rick Kean said, “It does seem that those of us out west are being asked to sequester carbon and purify air and water for the half of Massachusetts that generates much of the problem — while, in this case,depriving us of any way to recover our costs.”

The case has been of interest to many communities because it could set new precedents that could be used to increase tax-exempt land in tax-poor communities.

Velazquez said the ruling will also make it harder for Boards of Assessors to determine on what grounds it could refuse a charitable tax-exemption in the future.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:: dbroncaccio@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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