County in battle over tax break

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By David Giuliani

San Miguel County is fighting a ranch’s effort to get an exemption from property taxes.

County Attorney Jesus Lopez told the County Commission last week that the county and Pecos River Open Spaces are in litigation over the ranch’s request to get a charitable exemption for its conservation easement.

Pecos River Open Spaces is a nonprofit organization with IRS tax-exempt status. It holds two parcels of property along the Pecos River that are conservation easements, held solely for the purpose of keeping them in their natural, undeveloped state, the group says.

A conservation easement is a legally enforceable land preservation agreement between a landowner and a government agency or a qualified land protection organization. It limits development on the land.

The ranch is arguing that the conservation easement qualifies as a charitable activity.

Churches and charities are exempt from paying property taxes. Federal nonprofit status doesn’t guarantee an exemption, so groups must show that its purposes are charitable, Lopez said.

The case between the county and the ranch is before District Judge Eugenio Mathis, who is expected to rule soon.

Lopez said he expects the matter to be appealed if Mathis rejects the ranch’s request for a charitable exemption. He said the case will have “widespread repercussions.”

He said if the ranch prevails, it could result in a lot of land being taken off the tax rolls, Lopez said.

Richard Hughes, the attorney for Pecos River Open Spaces, said he doesn’t expect the financial consequences to be great if the court considers conservation easements eligible for charitable exemptions.

“There are very few organizations like ours that hold title to land to keep it in its natural condition,” he said.

He said his client hasn’t decided whether to appeal if Mathis’ ruling doesn’t go the organization’s way, adding that the group doesn’t have many resources.