West Virginia Ballot Item Targets BSA’s Land Use

October 28, 2014       Mark Hrywna      

West Virginia voters will head to the polls on Election Day (Nov. 4) faced with a question of whether to allow nonprofit youth organizations that build $100-million facilities to be exempt from property tax. The ballot question to amend the state constitution would affect just one property and organization: the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and its Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve in Fayette County.

The West Virginia Nonprofit Youth Organization Tax Exemption, Amendment 1, essentially was created for the $350-million, 10,600-acre reserve that’s now the permanent home of BSA’s National Scout Jamboree. After hosting its first Jamboree in 2013, the site held various activities this past summer for thousands of Scouts.

The reserve includes sports facilities, a skate park, BMX track, mountain bike trails, zip lines and some of the largest shooting and archery ranges in the nation, with a camping capacity for 40,000 people and a stadium that can hold 80,000.

Properties owned by nonprofit youth organizations used for “adventure, educational or recreational activities for young people and others,” and constructed for at least $100 million would be exempt from property tax, if voters approve the question (West Virginia Nonprofit Youth Organization Tax Exemption, Amendment 1). The measure also would allow a property to be leased or used to generate revenue while still being exempt from property tax.

Current state law allows nonprofit youth organizations to be exempt from property taxes only if their properties are used for “youth” activities. Renting the facility to other organizations could jeopardize BSA’s tax-exempt status with the state.

“A good venue turned out to be a great venue,” said Gary Hartley, director of community and government relations for National Scout Reserve, drawing interest from other promoters to do events at the property, such as X Games or Mountain Dew tours.

But renting the facility for non-youth events would jeopardize the Scouts’ exemption from state property taxes — unless the state constitution is changed. A 1944 Supreme Court of Appeals ruling determined that any commercial use of a nonprofit’s property would jeopardize its exempt status. Boy Scouts have been working with state legislators for three years, Hartley said, and agreed a constitutional amendment was the way to go. “Just passing a law doesn’t change constitution,” he said, adding that the ballot question was passed unanimously by the state senate in the spring and by a 96-1 vote in the state’s House of Delegates.

Hartley said they primarily want to keep it a Scout camp that runs youth programs, however, on a limited basis would like to host X Games or the Mountain Dew tour,

“If we could do something on a limited basis, this would allow us to do that, host X Games, or the Mountain Dew tour,” Hartley said.

The second part of the amendment, added with the cooperation of legislators, stipulates that it would not take effect until rules and regulations were developed to give the scouts guidance as far as the number of events held per year, so as not to unfairly compete with local business, Hartley said.

Some state representatives have raised concerns that the Scouts’ facility would compete with local for-profit businesses. “The analogy is we’re trying to get a bigger piece of the pie but what we’re doing is bringing a bigger pie,” Hartley said. The Boy Scouts and others are pushing the economic development aspect of the project (www.voteforgrowth.org), boosting tourism and creating jobs, in the region as a whole.

There’s no timeline on when the rules and regulations would be developed if the question gets approved. Should the amendment not pass, Hartley said Boy Scouts would limit the activity to scouting-based programs, such as youth programs and a high adventure base camp. “We’ve run several high adventure bases around the country, and we would continue to run this one, certainly it would be advantageous to us and the community,” he said.

In 2007, Boy Scouts of America sought a permanent home for its National Scout Jamboree, held every four years. Of 80 proposals from 28 different states, Boy Scouts in 2009 chose 10,600 acres next to the New River Gorge National River in West Virginia and construction got under way in 2010. The first National Scout Jamboree was held there during 2013, with plans to host the International World Jamboree in 2019.