Dec 05, 2011 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
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.
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.
For both sides, this issue is about finances as well as legal principles. The Dickinson Preserve land is assessed at a $406,000 value. Tax exemption would increase taxes (to offset the loss of taxes on the preserve land) for all Spafford town taxpayers, particularly for residents in that area which is in the Homer school district, as well as to some county taxpayers.
For the FLLT, failure to achieve exemption would, “clearly be a substantial [financial] burden,” and the FLLT Board of Directors would have to discuss whether or not they could keep the property, Zeff said.
A state superior court date was set for Dec. 6 to argue the issue, but recently was extended until January at the request of the Spafford town attorney.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Skaneateles Press. He can be reached at skaneatelespress.com.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.