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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

— Section 420A of the New York State Real Property Tax Law explains nonprofit tax exemption status, and previous cases have been decided that when a nonprofit fails to prove that a property was primarily used for a public purpose then it is not eligible for tax exemption.

At the town board meeting, Spafford Town Assessor Kim Stone-Gridley told the board there is no access to the steep cliffs and woodlands, and access to the shoreline site is limited to boats only, and boats can only land there certain times of the year.

“There is no access given to this parcel of land from Morris Run Road without the express written permission from the Dickinsons, which they [the FLLT] don’t have,” Stone-Gridley said.

She added that while the FLLT preserves the land, it seems accessible only to a select few people who have boat transportation.

“I don’t want the taxpayers burdened by something they cannot use, that’s my main purpose,” Stone-Gridley said. “I think the facts speak for themselves.”

“We don’t agree with that, and that is one of the reasons we’re ending up in court,” Zepp said. “Our understanding of the state exemption code is that it does not require public access, although we are certainly committed to providing public access. It is open to the public by boat.”

But for the land trust, the issue is more about the preservation and conservation of the land — which is directly related to the FLLT’s mission — and less about public accessibility, Zepp said.

He cited as an example that if a bald eagle nested in the preserve and a portion had to be closed to public access to protect and conserve the eagle’s habitat, then such a restriction to public access would be acceptable.

“It boils down to the interpretation of the state exemption regulation, and we think it’s clear,” Zepp said.

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