Conservation Tax Title Lands

CONSERVING TAX TITLE LANDS

The Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts provides technical assistance to 25 local and regional land trusts for land acquisition, protection, and management. The Compact has initiated a process to encourage disposition of environmentally-sensitive tax title lands into conservation status. In the spring of 2005, The Compact on behalf of the Brewster Conservation Trust (BCT) offered to bring this idea forward for discussion by town officials.

BACKGROUND OF BREWSTER PROJECT:

The Town of Brewster pursued a pro-active approach towards acquiring possession of tax-title properties in the past 20 years. In August 1985, a bylaw was passed to solicit town department interest in retaining title to owners unknown properties, once acquired by the Town through foreclosure, rather than auctioning off the properties. In May 1986, the first parcels were assigned to specific municipal uses (water supply, conservation, etc.), particularly near the Punkhorn, by Town Meeting. (Source: The Cape Codder, 21 Feb 1986).

In 1994, the Selectmen asked the Town Treasurer to research the Town’s history on foreclosure. The Treasurer found that in the past 20 years (1974-94) that 32 parcels had been foreclosed, 24 of which were owners unknown, all vacant parcels. She also reported that it cost about $1,200 in legal fees per parcel to foreclose. (Source: The Cape Codder, 9 Sept 94).

In the 1980s, the Town of Bourne adopted a bylaw that requires an annual evaluation of new foreclosed parcels by Selectmen, Planning Board and ConsCom to determine merit for town purposes. If none, then the land can be auctioned off. In the early 1990s, the Towns of Barnstable and Wellfleet passed bylaws that gave the Conservation Commission first “dibs” on selecting environmentally-sensitive parcels (mostly wetlands or parcels abutting conservation areas) that had been acquired by the towns through foreclosure. Barnstable later amended its bylaw to give affordable housing interests equal precedence.

Brewster had some parcels on its tax-delinquent list for over ten years. Other parcels had been pursued aggressively for foreclosure and the turnaround had been swift (18 months, reportedly, on a parcel for housing purposes).

New in 2005 was an increase in the maximum valuation of low value lands to $16,580 by the Dept. of Revenue. (Source: IGR No. 05-207). This means that delinquent parcels which are assessed for less than that value (typically, wetland or landlocked parcels) can be acquired with DOR approval, rather than the lengthy and cumbersome Land Court process for more valuable parcels.

ISSUES:

1) Do the town bylaws need to be revisited or updated?

2) Can land trusts and towns work together to bring tax-delinquent properties with environmental value under ConsCom custody? What can land trusts do to speed up the process?

3) Can the DOR certification process be used as a more cost-effective procedure for low value lands than the standard Land Court decree?

4) Can land trust knowledge be useful in identifying parcels of environmental value?

RECOMMENDATIONS USED IN BREWSTER:

1) Brewster Conservation Trust (through The Compact’s staff) and the Town discuss existing town policies and procedures related to tax title lands.

2) Brewster Conservation Ttrust (BCT) drafts a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for Town consideration, establishing a formal relationship between BCT and Town on sensitive lands that are delinquent.

3) BCT delivers an initial list for consideration as priority acquisitions from the tax title list. Review by Town Departments and Conservation Commission.

4) BCT agrees to pay for fees associated with bringing final list through either Land Court foreclosure or DOR certification as lands of low value.

5) Town Meeting votes to designate priority parcels to care and custody of Conservation Commission.

6) BCT gets reimbursed for legal fees by Town in the event that properties are redeemed by previous owners.

BENEFITS:

1) More land is reserved for conservation without town having to buy it.

2) More taxpayers will pay their taxes, or lose the property.

3) Town eliminates need for upfront payment for legal fees.

4) Land trust gets reimbursed if taxes paid and land does not get conserved.

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