Lincoln Street, Inc. v. Town of Springfield

In Lincoln Street, Inc. v. Town of Springfield, 159 Vt. 181, 615 A.2d 1028 (1992), Lincoln Street, a private nonprofit charitable organization which operates group homes for mentally handicapped persons, leased one such property from private owners. Under the lease agreement the organization was obligated to pay the annual personal and real property taxes assessed against the leased property. Lincoln Street sought a declaratory judgment for a property tax exemption arguing that property owned by private individuals and leased to a nonprofit organization for public or charitable use is exempt from property tax pursuant to 32 V.S.A. 3802(4). Id. at 182, 615 A.2d at 1029. Lincoln Street asked the court to overrule American Museum of Fly Fishing and all other decisions that require concurrence of ownership and use as a prerequisite to a public or charitable use exemption. Lincoln Street argued that the plain meaning of the tax exemption clause, when read independently, establishes direct and immediate use of property as a necessary criterion for property tax exemption. Id. at 184, 615 A.2d at 1030. The Court acknowledged that the tax exemption in 32 V.S.A. 3802(4) contains no express requirements for ownership. However, recognizing that our "primary objective is to give effect to the intent of the Legislature," the Court was constrained to "gather legislative intent by considering, not just isolated sentences or phrases," but the separate clauses of the statute "together, as parts of a unified statutory system." Id. at 184-85, 615 A.2d at 1030. Doing that, the Court found that the concurrence of nonprofit ownership and use is necessary to make the statute as a whole effective. Having therefore considered at length the legislative and common law history of the statute and having determined that, since at least 1886, three guiding principles were explicit or implicit in all decisions of this Court construing the legislative purpose of 3802(4), the Court reaffirmed the three-part test. Id. at 183-84, 615 A.2d at 1031.