A Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling in the ‘Hawley case’ is welcome news for all who appreciate the importance of protecting our diminishing supply of open land.
The judges ruled that the little Berkshires town of Hawley had no business sending a land trust a $173 property tax bill for some forest it holds.
The cash-strapped town had argued that the trust ought to be taxed since it hadn’t done much to foster public use of that forest — what it really had done was carve out “it’s own piece of tax-free private land.”
The trust countered that merely by protecting this land it was performing a valuable public service.
It’s a debate heard all over these days — it has come up in both Westport and Little Compton.
Squeezed ever more tightly by labor and pension costs, unfunded state mandates and more, town leaders look for revenue wherever they can find it. They may enjoy open space as much as the next person, but they worry when property leaves the tax rolls.
And they especially fret when that protected land is off limits to the public. In Little Compton, for instance, some complain that people have earned themselves a tax break by deeding away bits of their property — land that only they can access.
It’s a valid concern but it’s also the exception. Land trusts typically make every effort to welcome people onto the land. They blaze hiking trails, organize woods walks, and guide nature expeditions — Westport’s Town Farm is forever dreaming up new ways to draw people to those beautiful acres.
They tread a fine line though. Their charge is also to protect the land and creatures that live there and would be failing that duty if they allowed visitors to tromp through nesting places or delicate vegetation.
Had Hawley prevailed, the decision would have had a chilling effect on land preservation work that is already challenged by soaring land prices.
Open space is among the greatest gifts any town can leave to future generations — taxation would stifle the supply