June 18, 2018
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Rockland church going to pray about ‘unfair’ tax on its land

By Heather Steeves, BDN Staff

ROCKLAND, Maine — The city demanded the Aldersgate United Methodist Church pay taxes on some of its land. The church is going to pray on it.

“I think the town is being unfair,” said pastor Jacquelyn Brannen. “Our church will have to have a serious discussion about how we can continue to live and breathe in Rockland.”

With a $6,780 tax bill, it won’t be easy for her 30 or so church members, she said Tuesday night after a meeting of the Rockland Board of Assessment Review.

Three of the five board members voted Tuesday to make the church pay.

The church asked for the meeting after Rockland denied its request for tax exemption.

In 2010, the church paid about $4,700 in taxes on its 14 acres on Lake View Drive. Since then, the church split its land into three segments: one for the church, one for the parking lot and one for the parsonage building. Because of the division, the value increased, hiking the taxes to a total of $6,780.

Maine law says churches and church-owned buildings used for worship can’t be taxed. But Rockland officials argue that the land around churches is fair game. This includes the church parking lot and surrounding land, which account for one-third of the church’s property taxes this year.

“No other church in the city of Rockland has its primary parking taxed. Why is this church being singled out? It has more acreage than a lot of churches — but still,” Stephen Hanscom, the church’s attorney, said at the meeting Tuesday.

City officials argued they are being generous by not taxing every bit of land that they could. In a letter rejecting the church’s request for an exemption on some of the land, the city said about 4 acres of the church’s land is exempt under Maine law, but the city is giving an exemption on more than 7 acres of the church’s plot.

Rockland tax assessor Dennis Reed said he thought of the land the church is on and the plot the parking lot is on as one piece of land when he assessed the taxes. They’re actually two deeded lots. But each of the plots is partially taxable and partially tax-exempt. So instead of trying to figure out a square-foot-by-square-foot analysis of what part of each plot is tax-exempt, Reed taxed one entire plot and not the other.

Technically, the church now will have to pay taxes on the slice of land it owns that holds its parking lot and a knoll where outdoor worship services are held.

“They’re getting a break,” said Frank Isganitis, a member of the board of assessment review. “We are looking at 7 acres we could tax, and were only taxing 5.”

Rockland Congregational Church on Limerock Street is in a similar situation, Reed said. It owns a 5-acre vacant lot for which it will pay $2,150 in property taxes this year.

But the Methodist church-goers argue that their situation is entirely different . The Congregational church owns a vacant lot. The Methodist congregation’s newly taxed piece of land is the parking lot and the only safe access road to the church.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Jacquelyn Brannen, church pastor, who clutched her red Bible through the meeting Tuesday night as she sat in the front row. “I think other churches in Rockland should talk to their lawyers.”

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