Tax exempt status at Hildene in jeopardy

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(Host) The state says most of the historic Manchester estate that once belonged to the son of President Abraham Lincoln is not tax exempt.

The organization that owns Hildene says if it loses its tax exempt status, the land might have to be sold for development and it wants the state to reverse its decision.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) The former home of Robert Todd Lincoln appears dramatically at the end of a tree-lined driveway that leads into Hildene.

There are many impressive old houses in Manchester, but none with the history of this one. Purchased by Abraham Lincoln’s son in the early 1900s, the estate with its mansion, one room school house, observatory and farm buildings remained in the family for nearly eighty years.

Seth Bongartz is the executive director of Hildene. Standing outside the Lincoln house, Bongartz looks out over the 410 acres woods, meadows and wetlands that make up the estate.

(Bongartz) “This is Hildene. The thought of standing here and looking at something else is really unfathomable.”

(Zind) Bongartz says Hildene’s value lies in the fact that the entire property is virtually unchanged since Lincoln’s time.

Bongartz ticks off a list of school, public and charitable activities that take place on the land in question and says there’s no doubt in his mind that Hildene meets the legal definition for similar tax-exempt properties: that they be devoted to public, pious or charitable causes.

The state sees it differently. If a preliminary decision stands, nearly 90% of the Hildene estate would no longer be tax exempt.

Bongartz says it would impossible for the non-profit organization that owns Hildene to pay taxes on nearly $2 million worth of non-exempt property. He says the land might have to be parceled off and sold and it would be the end of Hildene.

(Bongartz) “It would go from being an incredibly meaningful place with an incredible future to something with, frankly, very little meaning and no future.”

(Zind) Hilden is one of two large properties under scrutiny in Manchester. The tax department is also reviewing the tax-exempt status of the Southern Vermont Arts Center. Town Manager Peter Webster says he feels Manchester is being unfairly singled out because of these valuable properties.

(Webster) “I think it could be characterized as an attack. They’re both great organizations. Both have significant land holdings and because of that the state is covetously eyeing those acres for taxation purposes.”

(Zind) Not so says Bill Johnson who heads the Vermont Division of Property Valuation and Review.

(Johnson) “We certainly aren’t picking on Manchester or any other town.”

(Zind) Johnson says the department reviews the tax-exempt status of property around the state to determine its fair market value. He says it’s important that the properties be assessed fairly from town to town so the statewide property tax is imposed equitably.

(Johnson) “It’s a matter of consistency and trying to apply the law in a reasoned way so that these types of properties across the state are treated reasonably equally and consistently.”

(Zind) Johnson says Hildene will have a chance to ask the tax department to overturn its initial decision next month.

Seth Bongartz says organizations with large tax-exempt properties are watching the Hildene case closely. He thinks Hildene will prevail in the end, but he’s worried that a costly court fight could hurt the organization. He says it’s already become more difficult to fundraise while Hildene’s tax exempt status is in limbo.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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