Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds ATB Decision in Tax Abatement Case

In the recent real estate case, Roman Catholic Bishop of Fall River v. Board of Assessors of Attleboro, App. Ct. Mass. (2014), the Appeals Court of Massachusetts had before it the issue of a requested tax abatement for a church property.

The plaintiff timely paid the assessed tax and filed a request for an abatement, claiming that the portion of the property that was assessed a tax was also entitled to exemption, because it was dedicated to cemetery use. (It is worth pointing out here that in order to file for an abatement, you must first pay the taxes owing, or else you will not be able to file. If the abatement is granted, you will be refunded the relevant amount that is adjusted.)

The plaintiff appealed the Appellate Tax Board’s determination of taxes owed on its property.  The plaintiff is the owner of a two-acre parcel, which contains a cemetery, composed of graves and unimproved land dedicated to cemetery use. The remainder of the land had a church building, which closed some two years prior to the tax assessment, and two other unused structures.

For the relevant year, the cemetery land was untaxed, but a tax was levied on the church portion, based on the condition of the property at the time taxes were assessed. At that time, the relevant area had three buildings, a church, a rectory, and a garage building , and a paved parking area. The buildings were vacant, and had not been used since the church was closed. The plaintiff had intended to demolish the buildings, and use the church for cemetery purposes. However, there was no evidence that any action had been taken by the date that the taxes were assessed. Therefore, the ATB refused the appeal.

The appeals court stated that in order for a party to be entitled to a tax exemption, it must show that the property falls “clearly and unmistakably within the express words of a legislative command.” The relevant statute here, is as follows:

“[Massachusetts Law] exempts from taxation `[c]emeteries, tombs and rights of burial, so long as dedicated to the burial of the dead, and buildings owned by religious nonprofit corporations and used exclusively in the administration of such cemeteries, tombs and rights of burial.’

The statute requires that in order for buildings on cemetery property to be exempt, they must be used exclusively in the administration of the cemetery. Here, however, the ATB found that the buildings on the property were closed for nearly two years before any preparations had begun to transform the use of the relevant portion of the property.

The plaintiff attempted to analogize the case to another in which a non-profit organization’s newly acquired land was deemed to be tax exempt for charitable purposes. However, the court rejected that comparison, because in that case, the organization was working affirmatively and diligently taking steps towards converting the property. In this case, however, there was a two year period during which the church was not taking any steps to remove the buildings in question (for the cemetery purpose).

The decision was thus affirmed.

The experienced Massachusetts real estate attorneys at Pulgini & Norton can help you with all of your real estate legal needs. If you have a question regarding buying, selling, or financing a home, give us a call today at 781-843-2200 or contact our office online, and we can help legally clear the way for you.

More Blog Posts:
Settlement Reached in Massachusetts Family Discrimination Housing Case, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published March 12, 2015

Massachusetts Appeals Court Sides with MERS in Mortgage Assignment Case, Massachusetts Real Estate Lawyer Blog, published March 2, 2015

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