Court Ruled Land Owned by a Synagogue Was Exempt from Real Estate Taxes

In a significant decision, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that a three-acre tract of

In a significant decision, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled that a three-acre tract of undeveloped land owned by a synagogue and located on its premises was properly exempt from real estate taxes. Ohio law exempts "houses used exclusively for religious worship … and the grounds attached to such buildings necessary for the proper occupancy, use, and enjoyment thereof, and not leased or otherwise used with a view to profit."

The synagogue in question owned fourteen acres, eleven of which consisted of the synagogue building, a parking lot, and a landscaped lawn area. The additional three acres were a largely undeveloped "grove of trees." The tax commissioner ruled that the three acres tract was not exempt from real estate taxes since it was "not necessary for the proper occupancy, use and enjoyment of the synagogue."

This determination was reversed by the state board of tax appeals, and an appeal was taken to the Ohio Supreme Court. The court, in upholding the exemption, observed that "the land added aesthetic qualities to the existing site. It also served as a sound barrier as well as providing a wooded backdrop for outdoor services and congregational activities." The court added that "for outdoor services to be appreciated, it is certainly important to hear them." Accordingly, the use of a grove of trees "as a sound barrier to the noise of traffic travelling by the property" was a necessary means of enabling the congregation to enjoy its property.

While property tax exemptions vary from state to state, an important lesson can be learned from this ruling—churches owning undeveloped tracts of land can enhance (although not guarantee) the exempt status of such property by integrating it into the church's activities. The congregation in the Ohio case used its land as a sound barrier. Other examples of functional use would be sporting activities, outdoor services, parking, and youth activities. Congregation Brith Emeth v. Limbach, 514 N.E.2d 874 (Ohio 1987)

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