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04/27/71 District of Columbia, v. National Parks Association

April 27, 1971

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, PETITIONER

v.

NATIONAL PARKS ASSOCIATION, RESPONDENT 1971.CDC.111 DATE DECIDED: APRIL 27, 1971



Van Dusen,* Circuit Judge, U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and MacKinnon and Wilkey, Circuit Judges.

UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

APPELLATE PANEL:

PER CURIAM DECISION

The District of Columbia appeals from a decision of the District of Columbia Tax Court canceling a $2,706.00 real property tax assessment for the fiscal year 1969 against a building belonging to the National Parks Association. *fn1

Late in 1967 the Association purchased its Washington headquarters building from another institutional owner and applied to the District for exemption from real property tax. Upon being refused, the Association brought suit on its assessment in the Tax Court, claiming that it fell within the scope of 47 D.C.Code § 801a, which provides:

The real property exempt from taxation in the District of Columbia shall be the following and none other:

(h) Buildings belonging to and operated by institutions which are not organized or operated for private gain, which are used for purposes of public charity principally in the District of Columbia. *fn2

The issues in the Tax Court revolved for the most part around the scope to be given the word "charity" and the meaning of the expression "principally in the District of Columbia" as these were used in the above-quoted provision. Noting that it was faced with a close question, the Tax Court nevertheless found for the Association, saying that "the decision would have gone to [the District] if at any point in the research -- legislative history, precedents, analogies, other exemption provisions showing legislative purpose -- a reasonable basis had been found for strict construction of section 1(h) of the Act of December 24, 1942." *fn3

However, without deciding whether § 801a(h) should be strictly construed, we find compelling reason in the legislative history and the express terms of the Act for excluding the building of the National Parks Association from that provision. For regardless of the way in which it is construed, § 801a(h) must be read in conjunction with 801a(k), specifically exempting from taxation buildings belonging to numerous named institutions, in the main scientific or educational in character, and "buildings belonging to such similar institutions as may be hereafter exempted from such taxation by special Acts of Congress." *fn4

Treating subsection (k), the Tax Court summed up its impact upon the remaining provisions of the Act in this way:

The naming of certain specific exemptions thus took care of some of the organizations ("institutions") which considered that they had a problem at the time of the 1942 Congressional hearings, and preserved their special interests. Congress thus specifically used one of the two procedures by which exemption may be obtained: exemption "by special Act of Congress." This was done "in order that there may be no misunderstanding." Nothing in such Congressional action derogates the other procedure: construction by the taxing authorities and the courts of the exemptions given in general terms by subdivisions (f) through (j) of section 1 of P.L. 846. (Emphasis added.)5

Our own review of the legislative history to the Act convinces us that 801a(k) does more than take care of a few deserving organizations that "considered they had a problem at the time of the 1942 Congressional hearings." We find that the insertion of this provision into the Act reflected Congress' inability to derive suitable generalized language covering institutions, for the most part educational or scientific in nature, that were felt deserving of tax-exempt status while at the same time excluding those that, although capable of effectively pleading a scientific or educational character, were considered properly subject to taxation. And we find that the final expression of § 801a(k), including within its scope "buildings belonging to such similar institutions as may be hereafter exempted from such taxation by special Acts of Congress " (emphasis supplied), far from being redundant as the Tax Court would have it, means just what it says -- that institutions not otherwise exempt who are similar to those named in the body of the provision must seek real property tax exemptions from Congress.6

Certainly it is true that the District of Columbia Committee initially wished to draft in generalized terms the provisions of the Act relating to institutions whose buildings would be exempt from taxation. Senator McCarran, then the Chairman of the Committee, opened the hearings on these provisions with the following:

There are two methods of approach, the one is by specific legislation naming the institution and declaring it by law to be exempt. Personally I do not favor that form of legislation at all at any time because it savors of class legislation for a specific individual or a specific purpose. I would rather see legislation by general terms clearly defined permitting the executives of the law to apply good ...


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