October 17, 2013WOLFEBORO — Following up on our Sept. 5 report on the $1.9 million abatement on the Michael Appe property on Springfield Point ordered by the Superior Court, we took a look at the larger issue of abatements granted and denied since the last revaluation.
The Town of Wolfeboro's last revaluation in 2010 produced a steady but diminishing surge of requests for abatements, according to information provided by Assessing Clerk Linda Ridings.
The data is for three full years, from 2010 through 2012.
In those three years there were a total of 278 abatement requests. Of that total, 191 were approved and 87 were denied.
Property owners who are denied abatements can appeal the denials either to the Board of Tax and Land Appeals (BTLA) or to Superior Court. For 67 of the 87 denials, filings were made with BTLA. The BTLA encourages the parties to settle rather than proceed to hearings, and 58 cases were settled without a formal hearing. Of the remaining nine cases, four went to hearings and were adjudicated, four are still pending and one was withdrawn.
Ten property owners took their cases to court in 2010. Of that total, four were settled through mediation, four were settled in court and two are still pending after more than two years.
Owners of ten of the denied abatements took no further action.
To keep this in perspective, according to the state Community Profile, Wolfeboro has 4,231 housing units, of which 3,405 are single-family. Thus the 278 abatement requests represented 8.2 percent of single-family properties.
In the context of those statistics it appears that the Appe case – one of the 10 that went to court – has been an exception rather than the rule; however, it was not the only case involving an expensive lakefront property. An even larger court-ordered abatement was made to Canyon Trust of 1996 on an estate at 45 Umbrella Point, off Forest Road, in a Superior Court decision also made this spring, on Feb. 14. The town was ordered to pay a refund of $155,443.19 on property taxes plus $3,335 in interest vs. a refund of $85,102.59 and $1,908.87 in interest on the Appe property. The grand total paid back by the town on these two properties alone was $245,789.65.
In both cases, which involved high-end lakefront properties, each with significant acreage of vacant land in current use, serious errors were made in the assessing process by Cross Country Appraisals, the town's contract assessor at the time.
Because the cases were not settled before they went to court, the town incurred significant legal fees in addition to the $245,789.65 paid in refunds and interest. For the Appe/Southern Spectrum case, the legal fees, billed in 21 installments, were $37,426.41. For the Canyon Trust case, the legal fees, billed in 16 installments, were $23,793.51. Total legal fees paid to the town attorney for these two cases were $61,219.92.
In addition, the town was also ordered to pay plaintiff's attorney fees and cost of $16,965 in the Appe/Southern Spectrum case (according to town records) and $952.60 in deposition fees, $1,900 in expert witness fees plus unspecified "filing and services fees" of plaintiff's attorneys in the Canyon Trust case (according to court documents).
Why the assessments were so wrong in these two lakefront property cases – and why the town did not settle before going to court – is the subject of another article.
Wolfeboro taxpayers should take comfort in the fact that the town's new contractor assessor, Todd Haywood, is aware of the earlier abatements, including the two major cases covered here. This reporter is aware of a number of cases here and in Ossipee – where he also replaced Cross County Appraisal as contract assessor – where he appears to be more confident in his assessing methodology and more flexible dealing with disputes. These qualities may help the town minimizes both BTLA appeals and courts cases in the future.
Haywood has already begun work on the next revaluation, set for 2015.