Opinion: Marion’s tax tide is rising

Nov 9, 2020

To the Editor, 

Imagine you are standing in three feet of water, the tide is coming up an inch every few minutes, and you can’t swim.  You are being told, don’t worry, it’s only rising inches at a time.  Eventually you will drown.  That is where we are with respect to land conservation in Marion.  Each time a parcel is proposed for conservation, we are told the taxes lost are insignificant.  However, what matters is the total amount of land in conservation and the aggregate taxes lost to the Town to date.  That is what is slowly “drowning” the Town.

Marion residents approved Article 5 at the recent Town Meeting, this takes the 33.7-acre Hoff parcel off the tax rolls.  As a Selectman, given that the Select Board had not taken a position, it was not appropriate for me to weigh in at that meeting.  I do however have thoughts on the situation.

Our most recent Master Plan notes that 34% of Marion’s 9,105 acres, a total of 3,091 acres, is permanently conserved and off the tax rolls.  Another 22% is subject to temporary Chapter 60 conservation restrictions, and thus paying a much-reduced level of taxes.  These percentages do not include tax exempt entities such as schools and churches.  I would welcome anyone finding me another town in this part of Massachusetts which has permanently conserved 34% of its land area.  

The Master Plan goes on to state that residential taxes account for 93% of Marion’s tax base.  Residential properties are 37% of the Town’s land use, thus, 37% of Marion properties pay 93% of the cost of running the Town.  I seriously doubt there are other towns in our part of Massachusetts where 60% of the tax parcels are off the tax rolls.

Those favoring more land conservation argue new development is a money loser to the Town, because it puts kids in our school system at more than $16,000 per student.  That is the average cost, so, if we add students, the average cost will come down.  The key is what does it cost at the margin to add each student.  If we have empty seats in our classrooms, the marginal cost of adding one student is close to $0.  The Sippican Schools reported enrollment peaked at 458 in 2017 and is down to 433 in 2020.

Land conservation enhances property values to a point.  Eventually, the opportunity cost of the taxes lost to a town starts to outweigh the value of the land conservation by making the town increasingly unaffordable.

New development is detrimental only if it is not managed and runs out of control.  In the case of Marion, development done incrementally and targeted at summer residents, seniors and retirees, and commercial and industrial entities will expand the tax base and bring in more tax payers to share the cost burden of running the town.  

Someone suggested that a tree is the most tax effective use of land, because it doesn’t use Town services.  That is not true.  For Marion, it is properties owned by summer residents.  Our summer residents often buy expensive homes, use very few Town services, and don’t vote.  Marion, as a coastal community, has a unique opportunity to encourage development which brings more summer people to Marion to expand our tax base.

We need to consider, not just current, but potential future taxes lost to the Town.  There are two 8 acre plus lots on Point Road that are being donated to Buzzards Bay Coalition this month.  They are attractive, buildable lots fronting on Hammetts Cove with existing sewer hook ups.   If $2 million summer homes were built on each of them, the annual real estate taxes and sewer and water fees would likely total about $40,000 per property.  So, the opportunity cost to the Town of conserving these two lots will be about $80,000 per year, going up 2.5% per year, with probably little related cost.

Walking trails appear to be a big selling point for the Hoff parcel.  Rather than the Town spending more money on conservation land for off-road walking trails, we should be spending money on pedestrian safety and making our streets more friendly for bikers and walkers.  We have most of our streets too dangerous to bike or walk on, particularly for our children.

Marion’s year around population has been stuck between 4,800 and 5,000 forever.  The Town, thus, lacks the scale, meaning the critical size or mass, necessary to cost effectively provide services  such as fire, police, sewer and water.  Incremental development will bring in more tax payers to share the cost of these services.

Those people, who are so passionate about conserving land in Marion, need to become equally passionate about keeping our Town affordable for our existing residents.

John P. Waterman
Marion Resident and Selectman