Ossipee selectmen vote to clear debris from town-owned lot

January 02, 2014
OSSIPEE — Selectmen here voted on Monday, Dec. 23 to authorize the use of town funds to clean up the remains of a house gutted by fire five years ago. In the past, the board has held accountable other property owners, forcing them to clean up their properties within one year after a fire. Selectman Richard Morgan, with his call for a vote, said that Ossipee Selectmen should be held to the same standard, and should spend up to $15,000 to clean up the mess.

The property in question is on the private road Jude Boulvard, just off Route 16. In Fall 2008, a cooking mishap sparked a fire that gutted the house. The owner of the home, David Cordeira, then apparently abandoned it, moving out West and leaving accumulating unpaid property tax bills behind. Earlier this year, Ossipee Board of Selectmen voted to take the property for unpaid taxes. Early estimates indicated it would cost about $15,000 to clean up the burned out building and rubbish from the site. When the estimate came in, Selectman Chairman Harry Merrow suggested the town auction the property "as is" leaving the clean-up to the new owner. He held that opinion at the Dec. 23 vote, while Selectman Robert Freeman sided with Morgan and said the town should bear the expense of clean-up. The property is listed as being just under an acre in size and has a garage situated on it. It is unclear what condition the garage is in. The current property assessment for the land and garage is $74,200.

In other selectmen's meeting news, and what has become a regular occurrence at their weekly meetings, another disgruntled commercial property owner came to ask them why the assessment on his property tripled this year. This time is was Chris Gounas, owner of Ossipee Lake Country Store that sits at the intersection of Route 16 and Deer Cove Road in West Ossipee. Others who have come forward in recent weeks include representatives from Sias Farm, Skehan Home Center, and Ossipee Chipping, perplexed at the sudden tripling of their land assessments. Without warning, these taxpayers apparently got one shocking Christmas present when they opened their late-December property tax bills.

At their Dec. 23 meeting, selectmen here still seemed as perplexed as when they too were blindsided by the sharply increased property rates. They encouraged Goumas, as they had the others, to meet with the town's assessor to try to get an explanation and make sure there weren't errors in their new assessments. If not satisfied with the response at that meeting, property owners always reserve the right to file a property tax abatement application by March 1. Goumas had done some research prior to coming to the selectmen's meeting and not only wanted to know why his assessment jumped so high when he hadn't made any improvements to the property but also why it appears none of his neighbors' commercial properties were similarly hiked. "Why am I not assessed at the same value as my neighbors are? We are all zoned the same, most have larger lots than me on Route 16…There is no rhyme or reason as to how they assessed the property," he said.

Two other property owners came to the meeting as well seeking a different kind of tax relief. Kevin and Janna Straughan of Agape Ministries, operators of the food pantry and thrift shop on Route 16 in West Ossipee asked selectmen to waive three years' worth of property taxes on the former Pine Hill Plaza. They argue that the property should have been property-tax exempt since they bought it in 2011, with the town's assessor arguing it is taxable because they weren't using the building for its intended charitable purpose. The Straughans, however, maintain that soon after they bought the building, they began storing items to support the charity and storing materials to do the extensive building renovations necessary to get the building open. All the while, they argue, the property taxes should have been waived as Agape Ministries is a federally registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization. They also asked selectmen to give them whatever relief possible from paying dumping fees at the town's transfer station. In the past, and as was the case with the Straughans, selectmen waived dumping fees to allow them to dump remains from their house that was destroyed by fire three years ago. That permission, however, did not apparently extend to the dumping of unwanted and junk items people bring to the thrift store such as old mattresses and broken televisions.

When the selectmen caught wind that Agape was also using the town's transfer station to dump those items free of charge earlier this year, they put an order out that non-profit groups are no longer allowed to use the transfer station free of charge. This has put a costly burden on the operation of Agape's mission, requiring them to now have a dumpster that costs about $100 every time it is dumped. Merrow pointed out that Ossipee Concerned Citizens, another local non-profit that takes in donated items, also has to pay transfer station fees for disposing of unwanted items. The difference is, however and as Straughan pointed out, the town taxpayers pay some of the bills for that non-profit organization including letting the organization use the building rent-free and tax funds are used when the building needs major repairs such as a new roof or, most recently, a new fence.

In an interesting twist, and in what appears to be a compromise, the Straughans for the first time since the organization began feeding the area hungry so many years ago, they will not be asking for money at Town Meeting. For years they came to town meeting asking for $6,000 a year to help with the cost of running the pantry. That number is recent years was increased to $9,500. This year, they have asked for nothing to be added to the Town Meeting warrant. In contrast, representatives from food pantries in Wolfeboro and in Freedom came to selectmen asking for a combined $7,500 for feeding the hungry from Ossipee that come to their pantries. The board voted to increase that to a combined $13,000 and send it on to the Budget Committee for approval.

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