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Volume 1 - Opinions of Counsel SBEA No. 22

Opinions of Counsel index

Miscellaneous organizations (summer camp) - Real Property Tax Law, § 421:

A summer camp may be entitled to an exemption from taxation when it has a planned and comprehensive program of activities which are designed to achieve a goal which is one of the enumerated exempt purposes of section 421. Recreation may be an incidental use of the camp, but it may not be the primary reason for one’s presence on the premises.

A 120-acre tract of land owned by the Dominican Fathers and used as a summer camp is entitled to an exemption from real property taxation pursuant to section 421 of the Real Property Tax Law. The requirements of that section can be summarized as follows:

1. The real property must be owned by an organization which is organized exclusively for one or more of the purposes listed in section 421(1).

2. The real property must be used exclusively for carrying out one or more of the purposes listed in section 421(1). Any portion of the property which is not so used is subject to taxation.

3. No officer, member or employee of the organization may be entitled to receive any pecuniary profit from its operations, except reasonable compensation for services performed in furtherance of the corporate purposes.

4. No exemption shall be granted if the organization is a guise or pretense for directly or indirectly making any other pecuniary profit for such organization or for any of its members or employees.

In determining whether real property satisfies the requirements of section 421, it must be borne in mind that statutes exempting real property from taxation must be strictly construed, and that no exemption will be granted by any doubtful implication. In other words, the right to the exemption must be clearly established according to the statutory provision, and if a doubt exists, then that doubt should be resolved in favor of taxation (Lawrence-Smith School, Inc. v. City of New York, 280 N.Y. 805, 21 N.E.2d 693).

          The first requirement of section 421 is surely satisfied by the Dominican Fathers in that they are undoubtedly organized exclusively for the moral and mental improvement of men and women and for religious and perhaps educational purposes. It is the actual use and financial operation of the camp which would appear to require a closer examination in regard to satisfying the requirements of the statute.

With respect to the use of the property, although the exemption statute does not require that the use of the property for exempt purposes be constant (see 5 Op.State Compt. 134) it must be shown that, when the property is used, the underlying and primary use of the property is exclusively and in good faith for exempt purposes. There must be more than a mere pretense of use for exempt purposes.

From the facts presented, it is our understanding that the site is used as a retreat by priests and as a summer camp for boys. In addition, there is a fee paid on behalf of each boy for the privilege of attending the camp and no religious activity is required during attendance. This presents a very difficult question as to exactly what is the use of the real property. An investigation may reveal that the property is used for religious purposes. However, even assuming that no religious activity occurs, it is possible that a summer camp could be exempt because it is used for purposes of education and/or the mental or moral improvement of the boys.

The assessor’s task is to determine the exact nature of the use of the camp and, in turn, to determine whether the use is one which is listed in section 421. It is our opinion that there must be organized activity which encompasses more than merely recreation. A religious camp should have a religious goal which is to be attained by successful participation in a planned daily program of study and activity. Likewise, owners of camps claiming existence for purposes of education or for the mental or moral improvement of men and women should be able to describe goals oriented to these qualities and they should be able to exhibit the planned studies and activities which lead to the ultimate goal. In all cases, recreation may be an incidental use of the camp but it may not be the primary reason for one’s presence on the premises.

Finally, the assessor must determine that the nonprofit aspects of the statute (numbers 3 and 4 above) are satisfied. This, of course, requires an examination of the charter, bylaws and financial records of the organization.

March 24, 1971

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