CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP v. Town of Limington

Decision Date24 January 2001
Citation2001 ME 16,769 A.2d 834
PartiesCHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP AND RENEWAL CENTER v. TOWN OF LIMINGTON et al.
CourtMaine Supreme Court

Stephen C. Whiting (orally), the Whiting Law Firm, P.A., Portland, for plaintiff.

Bruce A. McGlauflin (orally), James B. Haddow, Petruccelli & Martin, LLP, Portland, for defendant.

Panel: WATHEN, C.J., and CLIFFORD, RUDMAN, DANA, SAUFLEY, ALEXANDER, and CALKINS, JJ.

CALKINS, J.

[¶ 1] The Christian Fellowship and Renewal Center appeals from a judgment entered in the Superior Court (York County, Brennan, J.) affirming the decision of the York County Commissioners denying a tax abatement. The Center contends that its property is exempt from taxation, pursuant to 36 M.R.S.A. § 652(1)(A) (Supp.2000), because it is a benevolent or charitable organization. The commissioners determined that the Center was not exempt from taxation. Because we conclude that the findings of fact issued by the county commissioners are insufficient to permit appellate review, we vacate the Superior Court decision and remand the case to the Superior Court with directions to remand the matter to the York County Commissioners for further findings of fact.

[¶ 2] It is not disputed that the Center owns ninety-one acres in Limington which it purchased in 1989. From that time until the 1996 tax year, Limington did not assess taxes on the property. For tax year 1996, however, Limington assessed property tax on eighty-eight of the ninety-one acres, but it granted an exemption from taxation for three acres. The exempted three-acre parcel includes one building, known as the retreat center. Two buildings, the caretaker's house and the farmhouse, are on the portion of land which Limington determined is subject to taxation.

[¶ 3] Through an abatement application, the Center requested that Limington exempt all ninety-one acres from taxation for 1996. Because Limington did not respond to this request or to an attempted appeal to the Limington Board of Appeals and Assessment Review, the Center sought review in court pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 80B. The Superior Court (Fritzsche, J.) remanded the matter, and, eventually, a hearing was held before the York County Commissioners on the Center's abatement request.1 The county commissioners issued a document entitled "Findings of Fact," in which they concluded that the Center was not entitled to a tax exemption on the eighty-eight acres and denied the abatement request. The Center sought court review, and the Superior Court affirmed the decision of the commissioners.

[¶ 4] When the Superior Court acts in an appellate capacity, we review directly the determination of the commissioners for errors of law, abuse of discretion, or findings unsupported by substantial evidence. See Goldstein v. Town of Georgetown, 1998 ME 261, ¶ 5, 721 A.2d 180, 181

.

[¶ 5] The Center asserts it is a charitable organization that uses its real property in Limington solely for benevolent and charitable purposes, and therefore, that its property should not be subject to taxation. It relies on 36 M.R.S.A. § 652(1)(A) which states in part:

The following property of institutions and organizations is exempt from taxation:
. . . . .
A. The real estate and personal property owned and occupied or used solely for their own purposes by benevolent and charitable institutions incorporated by this State. Such an institution may not be deprived of the right of exemption by reason of the source from which its funds are derived or by reason of limitation in the classes of persons for whose benefit such funds are applied.

[¶ 6] The Center has the burden of demonstrating for the tax year 1996 that: (1) it owned the property; (2) it was a benevolent and charitable institution; and (3) it used or occupied the property solely for its own purposes. Id. This last element means a showing that the Center had "exclusive occupation of such a nature as, within the meaning of the statute, contributes immediately to the promotion of benevolence and charity, and the advancement thereof."2Camp Emoh Assocs. v. Inhabitants of Lyman, 132 Me. 67, 70, 166 A. 59, 61 (1933). We have also stated that in every tax exemption case, "there must be a careful examination to determine whether in fact the institution is organized and conducting its operation for purely benevolent and charitable purposes ...." Green Acre Baha'i Inst. v. Town of Eliot, 150 Me. 350, 354, 110 A.2d 581, 584 (1954).

[¶ 7] The county commissioners issued a document entitled "Findings of Fact" in which they concluded that the Center was not entitled to a tax exemption and denied the abatement request. The "Findings of Fact" includes a detailed statement reciting the procedural posture of the case and the respective legal and factual contentions of the parties. The findings contain several paragraphs describing the position and claims of the Center, including the sentence, "[The Center] notes that Christian Fellowship and Renewal Center should continue to be tax exempt as they provide religious, charitable and food distribution services." Another paragraph sets forth the position of Limington: "McGlauflin, on behalf of the Town of Limington notes that the Center property is used for a variety of functions for fees and not solely charitable or benevolent purposes." Recitation of the parties' positions or reiterations of the evidence presented by the parties do not constitute findings and are not a substitute for findings. See Newsweek Magazine v. Dist. of Columbia Comm'n on Human Rights, 376 A.2d 777, 784 (D.C.1977)

; Roy v. Town of Barnet, 147 Vt. 551, 522 A.2d 225, 226 (1986).

[¶ 8] The only portions of the findings which could be considered factual findings are statements that (1) the Center owns ninety-one acres of land in Limington; (2) Limington was advised by the State of Maine Bureau of Property Taxation that the Center did not qualify for exemption as a charitable and benevolent organization but that a portion of the property used for religious purposes did qualify; and (3) Limington followed the State's opinion and exempted from taxation the retreat center and three acres of land.

[¶ 9] The commissioners made no findings as to whether the Center was a benevolent and charitable institution and whether the Center used or occupied the property exclusively for its own charitable and benevolent purposes. Limington presented evidence that the Center offered its facilities for rent for weddings, baby and bridal showers, graduations, family reunions, and receptions, and that in some years it sold gravel from its land. The Center, on the other hand, supplied evidence of churches and other groups that used its facilities. It also presented evidence that no gravel was sold in 1996.

[¶ 10] The commissioners failed to make findings sufficient to apprise either us or the parties of the basis for their conclusion that the Center was not entitled to the tax exemption. The insufficient findings do not allow a reviewing court to determine whether the commissioners' decision is supported by substantial evidence.

[¶ 11] We are aware of the line of Maine cases holding that, when an administrative agency fails to make sufficient findings of fact and the appealing party fails to request findings of fact, the reviewing court will assume that the agency found all facts necessary to support its decision. In Advanced Med. Research Found. v. Town of Cushing, 555 A.2d 1040 (Me.1989) we held that in the absence of subsidiary findings, a court reviewing the commissioners' denial of a tax exemption must assume that the commissioners resolved all factual issues in favor of the Town and against the taxpayer. Id. at 1041. That case, however, relied upon the holding in Libby v. Lorrain, 430 A.2d 37 (Me.1981) which was not a review of an administrative agency determination but was an action in court to partition real estate. In Libby, we said that when a trial court does not make findings of fact and a party fails to request findings under M.R. Civ. P. 52(a), a reviewing court assumes that the trial justice found for the prevailing party on all factual questions necessary to the decision. Libby, 430 A.2d at 38. In Advanced Med. Research we did not articulate the rationale for applying M.R. Civ. P. 52(a) to cases reviewing administrative agency decisions.

[¶ 12] There is another line of Maine cases which holds that when the findings of fact of an administrative agency are insufficient to allow review of the agency's decision, the reviewing court should remand the case to the agency for further findings. In Harrington v. Inhabitants of Town of Kennebunk, 459 A.2d 557, 561 (Me.1983) (citations and quotation omitted), we said: "[T]he remedy for an agency's failure to act on all matters properly before it or to make sufficient and clear findings of fact is a remand to the agency for findings that permit meaningful judicial review." Although Harrington involved the review of a zoning board of appeals, there is no reasoned basis for requiring zoning boards to adhere to the requirement of making sufficient findings but allowing county commissioners, when deciding tax abatement cases, to escape meaningful court review by failing to make findings.

[¶ 13] These two lines of cases, represented by Advanced Med. Research and Harrington, have been followed in other cases,3 but the cases from one line have not referred to or discussed the other line of cases except in one dissenting opinion. See P.H. Chadbourne & Co. v. Inhabitants of Town of Bethel, 452 A.2d 400, 402, 408 (Me.1982) (Carter, J., dissenting)

.

[¶ 14] After review of the decisions in these two lines of cases, we conclude that this particular case requires a remand to the commissioners because their findings are insufficient to permit meaningful review. Our reasons are several. First, the county commissioners are required by statute to make findings of fact that are "sufficient to appraise the...

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