Westport land trusts hail Hawley court ruling

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The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday against a small Massachusetts town in its attempt to collect taxes on a 134-acre forest held by a land conservation group.

It's a case that has been watched closely across the Commonwealth, including here in Westport where talk of property tax revenue lost to land preservation efforts has arisen repeatedly at the Board of Selectmen and other venues.

In this case, the Berkshires town of Hawley had sent a $173 property tax bill to the New England Foresty Foundation for forest land it holds.

Hawley officials contended that, since the Forestry Foundation had not done much to foster public use of the woodlands, it did not qualify for a tax break on the property. The foundation, a lawyer for Hawley's Board of Assessors told the Boston Globe, was actually "carving out its own piece of tax-free private land."

The foundation countered that merely by protecting the land it was providing a valuable public service, and conservation groups across the state said that a Hawley victory might severely hinder future land preservation efforts.

Local land preservation leaders welcomed the decision.

John Vasconcellos, southeast regional director for the Trustees of Reservations (at Westport Town Farm), said the decision affirms the work the Trustees and other groups are doing to protect land.

Westport Town Farm, he said, is a great example of land that is truly open to and used by the public.

"We are constantly trying to come up with ways to draw people to this beautiful place." These include a community vegetable garden and a soon-to-start farmers' market, music events, fairs and more.

Barbara Erickson, the Trustees' president, said, "Technically, it is a clarification that land conservation organizations are true charities and qualify for the protections and exemptions which that implies. The real importance of this case lies in the affirmation of the core value and civic good of conservation organizations, emphasizing that we improve the cities and towns where we work. That is a really important affirmation.

"I do not count this as a victory for conservation organizations. The fact that we must argue in a legal setting the value of conservation land to a community means that we have failed in a key part of our work — ducating the public about the significance of the work we do …  Municipalities, small and large, will continue to struggle for ways to meet their fiscal responsibilities and land conservation groups should be partners to these towns and cities in improving their quality of life."

Ryan Mann, executive director of the Westport Land Conservation Trust, called the decision good news for land trusts everywhere, although "it doesn't really change the way we do things in Westport."

That's because the Trust already does its utmost to open its properties to public use, he said.

"All of our properties are open to the public unless there is a need to protect an especially sensitive habitat." They try to avoid, for instance, blazing a trail through a marsh or along a stream bed, he said.

The issues addressed in the Hawley case are of concern in "this day and age of tightening budgets and," he said, although he believes people and officials in Westport are supportive of the need to protect open space.

The Conservation Trust holds the deed to 920 Westport acres. The most visible of these places include Old Harbor Wildlife, Herb Hadfield, Dunham Brook, Forge Pond areas, as well as the new Headwaters Conservation Area in the town's north end.

"We are always trying to find ways tat ur properties can be better used by the public."

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