Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, No. YOR-13-511, August 7, 2014: land fully devoted to conservation and free public access is tax exempt.
The Trust owns eleven contiguous parcels of land on and near Sawyer Mountain in Limington. Eight of the parcels are open space properties which are protected by conservation easements enforceable by third parties, including easements on some parcels held by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife as part of the Land for Maine’s Future program. The other three parcels are “tree growth parcels” subject to forestry harvesting. In this appeal, the Trust challenged a denial of tax exempt status for all parcels. The court, considering this case the first one in which it was asked to squarely address the issues involved, held that land conservation constitutes a charitable purpose within the meaning of the relevant Maine law (36 M.R.S. § 652(1)) and that all parcels are tax exempt.
Essential to the decision were the facts that:
- The Trust’s purposes are “to conserve natural resources and to provide free public access to those natural resources.”
- The Trust’s properties are “used and operated as conserved wildlife habitat,” and are open to the public 365 days a year, with local schools using the properties for field trips and environmental education, and the public having access to the land for a variety of recreational activities.
- T Maine he Legislature has enunciated a strong public policy in favor of the protection and conservation of the natural resources and scenic beauty of Maine.
- Free public access. (“[T]he Trust essentially operates its properties in the manner of a state …. In doing so, the Trust assists the state in achieving its conservation goals.”)
- The testimony that the Trust’s tree harvesting plans are only “part of an educational program on sustainable tree harvesting, with any revenue flowing back into the Trust to be used in accordance with its purposes. An educational program on sustainable forestry is consistent with the Trust’s charitable purposes.”
The court distinguished an earlier case, in which exemption was denied, because the prior decision “was based on the absence of any benefit to the public of a game preserve operated in a manner that heavily restricted public access and was contrary to public policy.”
An additional review of this decision, which sets it in a broader context, is available from the Land Trust Alliance at http://www.landtrustalliance.org/conservation/conservation-defense/conservation-defense-news/maine2019s-highest-court-recognizes-many-public-benefits-of-conservation.
The decision itself is available at http://www.courts.maine.gov/opinions_orders/supreme/lawcourt/2014/14me102fr.pdf.