Navigation Top
AGO Logo Graphic
AGO Header Image
File a Complaint
Contact the AGO
AGO 1952 No. 295 - May 01, 1952
AGO Opinion Header Image
Smith Troy | 1941-1952 | Attorney General of Washington

THE QUESTION IS WHETHER CHURCH PROPERTY USED FOR OFF-STREET PARKING IS SUBJECT TO AD VALOREM TAXATION

The tax exemption of five acres upon which any cathedral or church is or shall be built would include property used for parking, such being a church purpose, and when such parking is on a non-profit [[nonprofit]], non-commercial [[noncommercial]] basis.

                                                              - - - - - - - - - - - - -

                                                                    May 1, 1952

Honorable Ralph G. Swanson
Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney
Thurston County Court House
Olympia, Washington                                                                                                              Cite as:  AGO 51-53 No. 295

Dear Sir:

            You ask our opinion whether that portion of church property used for a parking lot is exempt the county ad valorem property tax.

            It is our conclusion that the legislative exemption from taxation of five acres in area upon which any cathedral or church is or shall be built would include a portion of the church property, when the whole does not exceed five acres, used for a parking lot for members of the church attending services, when such parking is free and no profit is made from the property in question.

                                                                     ANALYSIS

            The question posed by this opinion is one of exceeding difficulty due to the provisions of the statutes enacted by the legislature.

            Various forms of exemption for religious and charitable institutions have existed since statehood.  In 1929 the exemption statute was amended to read in part as follows:

            "* * *

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            "The following property, to the extent herein limited, shall be exempt from taxation:

            "First:  All lands used exclusively for public burying grounds or cemeteries, all churches built and supported by donations whose seats are free to all, and the grounds whereon such churches are built, not exceeding one hundred and twenty feet by two hundred feet in quantity, together with a parsonage:  Provided, That in any case the area exempted shall include all ground covered by such churches and parsonages and the structures and ground necessary for street access, light and ventilation, but the area of unoccupied ground exempted in connection with both church and parsonage under this proviso shall not exceed the equivalent of 120 by 120 feet.  The parsonage need not be on land contiguous to the church property if the total area exempted does not exceed the area above designated: Provided, That such grounds are used wholly for church purposes and not otherwise; * * *" § 11111 Rem. Rev. Stat.

            In the 1933 session extensive revisions were proposed to the exemption statute.  These revisions were embodied in Senate Bill No. 219.  During the course of the passage of this act through the legislative processes, it appeared that the exemption of a property on which is located a large cathedral in Seattle (St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral) had been questioned and the question of revision or clarification was before that legislature.  In the course of the clarification and amendment of the exemption statute a provision was inserted in the law extending the exemption of church property to five acres from the previously existing 120 by 200 feet granted in the 1929 act,supra.

            The legislative record for 1933 is indicative of the situation.  At page 120 is shown the Governor's veto message as to Senate Bill No. 219, he having exercised his veto as to certain minor provisions of the bill.  Therein the Governor says:

            "* * *

            "This act, as introduced, was designed to clarify certain obscurities in existing laws relatingto exempting from taxation property used solely for  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]]religious purposes, property of non-sectarian organizations or associations organized primarily for religious purposes, property of non-profit organizations or associations engaged in character building in girls and boys, property of the United States, historical collections, etc.

            "As to the desirability of enacting this clarifying statute with reference to the property mentioned, there appears to have been little controversy and with its purpose I am in accord.

            "Accordingly, I have approved all of said act with the exception of item or paragraph sixth [[six]]and item or paragraph eighth [[eight]], which are included in Section 1 of the new act, which are designed to amend Section 7 of former existing law.

            "* * *" (Emphasis supplied.)

            So that the statute, after the Governor's action, read in part as follows:

            "* * *

            "The following property, to the extent herein limited, shall be exempt from taxation:

            "First.  All lands used exclusively for public burying grounds or cemeteries, all churches built and supported by donations whose seats are free to all, and the ground whereon such churches are built,not exceeding five acres in area upon which any cathedral or church of any recognized religious denomination is or shall be built, together with a parsonage:  Provided, That in any case the area exempted shall include all ground covered by such churches and parsonages and the structures and ground necessary for street access, light and ventilation, but the area of unoccupied ground exempted in connection with both church and parsonage under this proviso shall not exceed the  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]]equivalent of 120 x 120 feet, except as hereinabove mentioned.  The parsonage need not be on land contiguous to the church property if the total area exempted does not exceed the area above designated:  Provided, That such grounds are used wholly for church purposes and not otherwise; * * *" (Emphasis supplied.)  § 11111 Rem. Rev. Stat. (chapter 115, Laws of 1933)

            The underlined words would indicate that the legislature had in fact granted the larger land area exemption requested by the church in Seattle and is evidence that this intention was carried out.  Unfortunately, we have here a piece of poor bill drafting in that the proviso, which is partially underlined above, was not amended so as to be in harmony with the amendment adopted by the legislature.

            The entire exemption statute, which is very long, was again amended in the 1933 Extraordinary Session and in 1939, but such amendments seem to have no connection with the subject of this opinion.  The section has finally been codified and divided into more workable and smaller sections and is shown in the new code as RCW 68.24.200, and reads as follows:

            "The following property shall be exempt from taxation:

            "All lands used exclusively for public burying grounds or cemeteries;

            "All churches, built and supported by donations, whose seats are free to all; and the ground, not exceeding five acres in area, upon which any cathedral or church of any recognized religious denomination is or shall be built, together with a parsonage.  The area exempted shall in any case include all ground covered by the church and parsonage and the structures and ground necessary for street access, light, and ventilation, but the area of unoccupied ground exempted in such cases, in connection with both church and parsonage, shall not exceed the equivalent of one hundred-twenty by one hundred-twenty feet.  The parsonage need not be on land contiguous to the church property if the total [[Orig. Op. Page 5]] area exempted does not exceed the areas above specified.  To be exempt the grounds must be used wholly for church purposes."

            Turning to the question before us, it resolves itself into this: Should the ambiguity of the act as it exists work to defeat the intention of the legislature to exempt up to five acres of land when used for a strictly non-profit church purpose?  Manifestly, there is no structure in the State of Washington and perhaps elsewhere in the world which would cover five acres of ground less 120 x 120 feet.  A strict application of the proviso might lead to such absurd result and result in a defeat of the legislative intent at the time of the enactment of the five‑acre exemption provision.

            We are informed that the answer to this question is of concern to at least three churches of different denominations in the same community.  Two of them already provide parking, and their property used therefor is not now subjected to ad valorem taxes.  Your question concerns the third, which owns old school property contiguous to the church and parsonage except for a bisecting street.  The church now proposes the razing of the school building which has been abandoned and the using of the property in connection with its church for parking for its parishioners.  It is our understanding and this opinion is based upon the proposition that such parking will be free and that the church will derive no revenue therefrom.  We might mention in passing that the provision of parking by institutions such as churches, theaters, etc., is in line with current public need and necessity and, in our opinion, a thing which should be encouraged.

            It is therefore our opinion that the legislature has exempted five acres of land from taxation upon which any cathedral or church is or shall be built; that the providing of parking to facilitate attendance at the church on part of such ground is a "church purpose" in line with the last sentence of the recodification of the law mentioned above and that such property is exempt from ad valorem taxation while used without profit.

Very truly yours,

SMITH TROY
Attorney General

Content Bottom Graphic
AGO Logo