State high court rules in favor of Hunt Valley church

Undeveloped property considered tax-exempt

January 05, 2001|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

In a split decision, Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that the Archdiocese of Baltimore does not have to pay taxes on 16 1/2 acres of church property that state assessors argued were not being used for religious purposes.

The Court of Appeals ruled 4-3 that the tract, part of St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church on Cuba Road in Hunt Valley, is tax-exempt though it is designated as open space.

Saul E. Gilstein, a lawyer for the archdiocese, said the ruling will keep state assessors from trying to tax tracts used by houses of worship. "This decision has ramifications beyond just this one church because churches are expanding to the suburbs all over and the state is going to have to look at this case when it makes its tax decisions," Gilstein said.

Assistant Attorney General David M. Lyon, who handled the appeal for the state Department of Assessments and Taxation, declined to comment on the 22-page ruling last night, saying he had just received it.

The case goes back to 1992, when the Baltimore County Board of Appeals approved construction of the 650-seat church but restricted development of the 27-acre property to 7 1/2 acres to protect the area's rural character, according to the opinion.

The department determined that 7 1/2 acres, along with 3 acres for a septic and storm water management system, qualified for a tax exemption, the opinion said. State officials noted a 1972 state law that said church lands must be "actively used, exclusively for" religious purposes to be tax-exempt, according to the opinion.

The archdiocese filed suit after it received a tax bill of $1,937 for the disputed property.

The appeals court ruled yesterday that though the tract is designated as open space, it could be used for religious purposes.

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