Does property vacated but still owned by a religious organization continue to qualify for exemption from real estate taxes under a Wisconsin law exempting "property owned and used exclusively by … a religious association"? No, concluded a state appeals court.
A Catholic order operated a convent on the property from 1953 through 1983, when it moved its members to new facilities in another state. The Wisconsin property was listed for sale, but did not sell for two years. A local tax assessor, finding the property to be vacant and listed for sale, determined that it was not exempt from real estate taxes for 1984 or 1985.
The Catholic order argued that the property continued to qualify for exemption even after it was vacated, since (1) it stored some maintenance tools and lawn implements there; (2) it retained a groundskeeper to maintain the property; (3) it had the property listed for sale; and (4) it maintained a mortgage on the property and used some of the proceeds to acquire its new quarters in another state.
The appeals court, in denying the order's claim of exemption, emphasized that the state law exempted only property owned and used exclusively by a religious association. "Exclusive use," observed the court, means the "physical use of the property" in connection with the "regular activities" of a religious organization. The mere maintenance and repair of the vacated property, and listing it for sale, did not amount to an "exclusive use" of the property by the order, since the property "was not being used for any of the order's regular activities or benevolent purposes." The Dominican Nuns v. City of LaCrosse, 419 N.W.2d 270 (Wisc. App. 1987)