A case before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court over whether a piece of forestland in the Berkshires can be taxed is being closely watched by conservation groups on the Vineyard, who say it could have wide implications here.

The case between the New England Forestry Foundation and the small western Massachusetts town of Hawley dates to 2010 when the Hawley board of assessors refused to grant the forestry foundation a tax exemption on about 120 acres of land it owns. The town sent the forestry foundation a $172 tax bill.

The foundation appealed the decision with the state appellate tax board, which found in favor of the town. The case was later taken on appeal by the state’s highest court, which heard arguments on Monday this week. A decision is pending.

Whether conservation land is considered "occupied" is one issue. — Mark Lovewell

In Massachusetts, land used by a charitable organization qualifies for a tax exemption under state law. But the town of Hawley argued that lack of access and use of the forest made it ineligible for the exemption.

“The property owner’s failure to demonstrate active use of the property destroys its eligibility for exemption,” town attorneys wrote in their brief. They further quoted the appellate board, which said in part: “Simply keeping the land open and allowing its natural habitat to flourish is not sufficiently charitable.”

According to the town, the appellate tax board ruled that the forestry foundation did not appropriately qualify as a tax-exempt charitable organization and the property had insufficient public access to qualify for a tax exemption.  

In their brief with the court, attorneys for the New England Forestry Foundation disagreed, saying the foundation exists “for the purpose of protecting the natural beauty, biological integrity, recreational availability, and long-term viability of the land. This purpose — forestland conservation — has long been recognized as a charitable activity in the commonwealth.”

The foundation further argued that it qualifies as a charitable organization and occupies the forest by protecting it from development and actively managing it through an ecologically sustainable forest management plan.    

Friend of the court briefs have been filed on both sides of the case. Conservation groups have sided with the forestry foundation, while the Massachusetts Association of Assessing Officers has sided with the town in the case, which also involves questions about the value of open space.

Vineyard conservation groups are taking special note. According to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s 2009 Island Plan, 36 per cent of land on the Island, or 20,720 acres, is protected open space.

“It’d be very serious,” said Adam Moore, executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, which owns or has conservation restrictions on more than 2,800 acres on the Island. “If all these lands that are held in conservation by conservation organizations were found to be subject to property taxes it would be terribly expensive. It’d be financially ruinous. Not just for Sheriff’s Meadow, for all the different groups. Not just on Martha’s Vineyard but throughout the commonwealth.”

On the subject of public access, Mr. Moore said Sheriff’s Meadow works hard to provide access to most of its properties. “I think there are so many different values to conservation land — the provision of public access is a very important one,” he said.

The Island has more than 20,000 acres of protected open space. — Mark Lovewell

But he said there are other benefits too. “They provide wildlife habitat, they offer scenic views, they protect natural resources, they protect trees and rare plants and offer places for rare birds and wildlife and common birds and wildlife that we enjoy every day . . . there are so many benefits to conservation that all of these lands provide,” Mr. Moore said.

He said that Sheriff’s Meadow has been questioned about but never denied a tax exemption. He said he was concerned other towns might follow Hawley’s precedent.

Vineyard Conservation Society executive director Brendan O’Neill expressed a similar view. “It’s really a test case,”said Mr. O’Neill, who called recent decisions by appellate tax boards in favor of taxing conservation groups “very concerning.” And he said the value of open space goes beyond the tax rolls.

“It’s a great opportunity to really educate people and leadership about the importance of open space in the commonwealth and the role that is played by these nonprofit organizations in protecting open space,” Mr. O’Neill said.

“Thousands of acres have been conserved on the Vineyard through these nonprofits.”

Like Mr. Moore, he said to date, Island town assessors have routinely accepted tax exemptions for conservation groups.

Part of the court case debates whether preserving open space is using the land, Mr. O’Neill noted. “Conservation organizations statewide have taken the view that leaving land in its natural state is occupying it for the conservation purposes for which the group was created,” he said. “It’s easy for a church or a school to occupy its land for the purposes for which it was created . . . what about the case of protected open space? There is not a structure to occupy, that sort of thing. We’re saying that it’s our being good stewards that qualifies for such occupancy, we’re occupying [the property] to further our purposes . . . stewardship, scientific studies, as well as things like supervised public walks. So it’s an interesting case.”

As for the value of conservation lands, he said: “They create great benefits in the form of natural resources, clean water for shellfish resources, which is extremely valuable to towns, and farmland and habitat. All those things have significant tangible and intangible value.”

Chris Kennedy, Martha’s Vineyard superintendent for The Trustees of Reservations, also spoke to the question of value when it comes to conservation land.

“People that look at open space and say, ‘unless you’re doing something it serves no purpose.’ I think it’s kind of short-sighted,” Mr. Kennedy said.

He noted that undeveloped land does not need the services and infrastructure, like schools, roads, fire and police services required by developed land.   

“In the long run conservation land is one of the best values for the town,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Clearly you have to have a balance.”