Shrine Still Not Absolved From Massachusetts Property Taxes

Daily Tax Report: State provides authoritative coverage of state and local tax developments across the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, tracking legislative and regulatory updates,...

By Aaron Nicodemus

A Roman Catholic shrine has filed a new lawsuit asking to recover almost $70,000 it paid in an “illegal tax” to the city of Attleboro this year.

It is the latest salvo in a years-long legal dispute between the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette and the city over whether parts of the shrine’s property are taxable.

The shrine filed a lawsuit in Bristol County Superior Court July 10, asking the court to order the city to return the $69,618 the shrine paid in property taxes to the city in 2017, plus interest and attorney’s fees. In the lawsuit, the shrine claims that its property should be exempted from taxes because it is a religious organization; it also argues that two parts that have been ruled as taxable are controlled by other charitable groups ( National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette, Inc. v. City of Attleboro , Mass. Super. Ct., 1773 CV00581, complaint filed 7/10/17 ).

“Though they lacked the authority to do so, the Assessors taxed the Shrine in 2017 and have denied, without basis or explanation, an abatement request. The City’s conduct in this regard is illegal,” the lawsuit stated.

La Salette has argued that it is owed all of the $350,000 it has paid to the city since 2013, plus interest, when the city reversed its position of more than 60 years that the shrine’s then-200-acre campus was a house of worship and exempt from taxes under state law. La Salette sued. In the most recent decision in March, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the shrine and its buildings are tax-exempt, but the wildlife sanctuary and former convent are taxable property.

Excess Land

La Salette argues in its latest filing that it sold more than 100 acres of conservation land to another charitable group, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and that the paperwork for a nonprofit exemption for leasing the shrine’s former convent as a battered women’s “safe house” has been properly filed with the city for 2017.

“It’s the assessors’ position that there is this excess land that La Salette is not using for religious purposes,” Diane C. Tillotson, a partner with Hemenway & Barnes LLP and counsel for the Shrine, told Bloomberg BNA. “But there isn’t any.”

The new lawsuit represents fiscal year 2017 taxes that the shrine paid this year, she said. The shrine is still attempting to claw back the other $350,000 in taxes for 2013-16, and the Massachusetts Appelate Tax Board is considering those requests.

The City of Attleboro’s Board of Assessors didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. As of July 17, the city hadn’t filed a response with the court. The city has 20 days from the date of filing with the court to respond.

Taxes Under Protest

In 2013, the city’s assessors valued the taxable portions of the Shrine’s property at $4.96 million and issued an almost $93,000 assessment. The Shrine paid the taxes under protest and filed an unsuccessful application for abatement with the Board of Assessors.

The judicial appeal followed the Appellate Tax Board’s determination that select facilities were subject to taxation—a welcome center was partially exempt and a maintenance building, former convent (now safe house), and wildlife sanctuary were fully taxable. The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision reversed in part the Tax Board’s decision, finding the welcome center and maintenance building fall within the scope of a state exemption, and affirming the denial of abatement for the safe house and sanctuary.

To contact the reporter on this story: Aaron Nicodemus in Boston at anicodemus@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jennifer McLoughlin at jmcloughlin@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the complaint is at http://src.bna.com/qQs.

Copyright © 2017 Tax Management Inc. All Rights Reserved.