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Spafford to fight land trust in court over tax exempt status

The 20-acre Cora Kampf Dickinson Preserve along the eastern shore of Skaneateles Lake is at the center of a tax battle between the town of Spafford and the Finger Lakes Land Trust. A narrow band of shoreline along the Staghorn Cliffs area of the preserve, above, is publicly open but accessible only by boat.

The 20-acre Cora Kampf Dickinson Preserve along the eastern shore of Skaneateles Lake is at the center of a tax battle between the town of Spafford and the Finger Lakes Land Trust. A narrow band of shoreline along the Staghorn Cliffs area of the preserve, above, is publicly open but accessible only by boat. Bob Werner

— The town of Spafford will fight the Finger Lakes Land Trust in state court over the organization’s claim to tax exempt status for its 20-acre Cora Kampf Dickinson Preserve along the Skaneateles Lake shoreline.

The Spafford town board voted unanimously 4-0 (with board member Ken Lierberman absent) in a special meeting on Nov. 30 to challenge the FLLT’s claim in court.

The disagreement stems mainly from whether or not there is sufficient public access to the land to be deemed tax exempt, as stipulated under state law: the town maintains there is not, the land trust maintains there is.

The land trust filed suit over the issue in New York State Superior Court against the town of Spafford on Oct. 28, after the two sides could not come to an agreement.

“This is the first time in our 22-year history we’ve ever been denied for tax exempt status. That’s why we feel very strongly about this,” said FLLT Executive Director Andrew Zepp. “We do think the statute is clear that these lands should be eligible for exemption.”

At the Spafford Town Board meeting, Supervisor Webb Stevens told the board, “The state said there is a reasonable basis to deny the tax exempt status application due to a lack of public access to the land, so the question for us is, do we take this to court or do we capitulate?”

The Dickinson Preserve features more than 1,300 feet of Skaneateles Lake’s eastern shoreline as well as the adjacent Staghorn Cliffs and steeply sloping woodlands, which was donated to the FLLT earlier this year by the Dickinson family. The preserve’s narrow band of shoreline below the cliffs is open to the public during daylight hours for viewing of the fossil reef, fishing, and bird watching.

Access to the preserve’s rugged interior is by permission only for research and educational purposes, and is only reachable by boat.

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