Taxpayer goes to court over Upton home assessment
An Upton property owner has gone to Superior Court over his 2011 tax bill, arguing in part that his seasonal home’s water supply - a pipe running from a brook - is not worth the $5,000 of valuation assigned to the water source by the town.
This summer the Oxford County Board of Assessment Review (OXBAR) denied Dean Merchant’s appeal on the assessment for his 19th-century former Grange Hall on Route 26.
Using a Trio property assessing software program, Upton assessing agent Wade Rainey of T.A. Associates valued it at $58,557 as part of a 2011 town-wide revaluation.
The figure is nearly double the previous assessment. Merchant’s tax bill was $453, he said.
Early this month Merchant filed an appeal in Oxford Superior Court.
A fundamental part of his challenge was his objection to the relative values assigned to two sets of properties: those on Lake Umbagog and those back from the lake, where his property is located.
Valuations on lakefront property, he argued, were much too low compared to some selling prices for such property. On the other hand, he said, some properties away from the lake could not be sold, even at prices significantly lower than the assessed value.
Rainey has said he had assigned average per-acre values based on median-range prices on all the properties sold.
At the June appeal before OXBAR, Rainey said that in 2009 and 2010, “there was an upshot in the price of land in Upton, which was kind of a shock, because everyone else was down.”
He said he had talked with realtors who told him the town “is coming into its own, because it’s becoming a four-season resort area, with snowmobiling, hunting, ATVing and fishing.”
The town, said Rainey, “is having growing pains.”
Merchant, feeling that pain, said his uninsulated building on less than a half-acre of land should be valued at about $32,000.
Now-former Selectman Bob Brown described to the board some of the factors contributing to each property value in Upton.
He said the standard per-acre land value on a tar road was set at $24,500. And, he said, any water supply coming into a house added another $5,000 of valuation, while a septic system added the same amount.
Merchant’s lot was assessed as a half-acre. The total land value for Merchant was $34,000, Brown said, and the 1,564-square-foot building was worth $31,586.
The overall value was dropped some in subsequent discussions, Merchant said.
But Merchant objected particularly to the $5,000 value assigned to the water source. He said his practice has been to either insert a pipe into the brook, or simply carry the water inside. The brook water is not potable, he said.
Two OXBAR board members were sympathetic to that argument, and one asked if the amount might be cut in half as a compromise.
Brown said he did not know of anyone else in town with a water supply like Merchant’s. But he worried that lowering its value might set a precedent that could lead to other property owners arguing the particular value of individual water sources – drilled wells, dug wells, springs, etc.
“I’m afraid it’s going to open a can of worms,” said Brown.
He and Rainey said everyone in town had been treated equally under the Trio “mass appraisal” system.
Merchant said in his case it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
He also cited research done by two realtors he hired, who found a Grange Hall in St. Johnsbury, Vt., which sold recently for $38,000, and another in Essex, Vt., which is on the market for $29,000.
He added that he believed his lot size to be less than a half acre. Two board members suggested he research his deed and if the lot size was smaller, ask for an adjustment.
The board ultimately denied the appeal, siding with the town’s argument that Merchant had been treated the same as everyone else in Upton under the system.
Upton selectmen have until early November to reply to his appeal, Merchant said last week.
He said he has since checked his deed for the lot size. It provides dimensions, he said, and based on those dimensions, he estimated the size at less than a quarter acre.
Merchant said he is pursuing the appeal largely as a matter of principle.