In a case that has been closely watched by conservation groups on the Vineyard, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Thursday that a plot of forestland in the Berkshires cannot be taxed.
The ruling reverses a decision by the state appellate tax board which had upheld assessors in the small town of Hawley in the dispute with the New England Forestry Foundation. In 2010 assessors refused to grant the foundation a charitable tax exemption on 120 acres it owns in the town, sending the foundation a $172 tax bill. The case was ultimately appealed to the state’s highest court.
Issues in the case reached beyond whether conservation groups should be exempt from paying taxes, and included an examination of whether conservation land that is not open to the public for traditional recreational uses provides wider public benefits.
In the 13-page ruling issued Thursday, the court found that it does.
“Historically, the ‘benefit’ provided by land held as open space or in its natural state has been measured by the direct access of people to that land for such purposes as recreation, scenic views, or education” the decision said. “However, as the science of conservation has advanced, it has become more apparent that properly preserved and managed conservation land can provide tangible benefit to a community even if few people enter the land.”
The court found that the New England Forestry Foundation lessens government burdens by protecting the environment and achieving state conservation goals. And public access is not required to qualify for an exemption, it said.
“It is fair and proportional to tax privately held land but to exempt those lands that are held charitably so long as the charity in fact uses the land in a manner that contributes to the community and reduces the burdens of government,” the court wrote.
The case was argued before the court this winter, and friend of the court briefs were filed on both sides. Conservation groups, including the Trustees of Reservations, sided with the forestry foundation, while the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers sided with the town. The case also involved questions about the value of open space.
The decision took special note of the historic role of the Trustees as the first land conservation entity of its kind in the United States. “The  statute creating the Trustees was inspired by the writings of Charles Eliot who proposed the creation of a board of trustees that would be empowered to hold important parcels of land for preservation and public enjoyment much like the Trustees of the Museum of Fine Arts had been established . . .”
And it noted public policies that favor environmental protection in other states, such as California. “We are not alone in recognizing conservation organizations as serving a traditionally charitable purpose . . .” the decision said in part.
Island officials who had watched the case closely called it a victory for conservation on the Vineyard.
“It’s a resounding victory for conservation,” Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation executive director Adam Moore told the Gazette Thursday. “I’m very pleased by the decision and I look forward to reading it in detail and understanding everything that the Supreme Judicial Court decided on the matter. I know it to be a victory for conservation and we’re very pleased by that.
“In what I’ve read so far, the court’s decision speaks in several respects to the many values of conservation land,” he added.
According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission 2009 Island Plan, 36 per cent of land on the Island, or 20,720 acres, is protected open space.
Vineyard Conservation Society executive director Brendan O’Neill said he had yet to read the complete decision but was printing it out and planned to study it. “All I can say is what you might expect, which is from a land conservation perspective, we’re incredibly pleased with the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in Hawley,” he said, adding: “Just from scanning it, they were quite supportive of the position that conserving land serves a wide range of public benefits. We’re thrilled.”
Ronald H. Rappport, longtime town counsel for five of the six Vineyard towns, concurred. “I think it’s a terrific decision for the Vineyard,” Mr. Rappaport said. “A lot of people have given thousands and thousands of acres of land to preserve the Vineyard, and if this case had gone the other way it would make it very difficult for the conservation groups to accept gifts and maintain the properties. And so for the Vineyard and the rest of the state, it’s a tremendous victory for conservation.”