VT property owner’s unoccupied deer camp sends property tax soaring

A HOMESTEAD?: This never-occupied deer camp, which has no electric, water or sewage, lies at the center of a property-tax dispute in Townshend, Vt.

By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog

In Vermont, the nation’s 48th worst state for property taxes, one fed-up property owner is taking his property tax appeal to the top — and to the public as well.

Prior to this year, Tom Chase paid an annual tax of $856 for a family-built deer camp sitting on 27 acres in Townshend. After the town reappraised property values in 2013, however, Chase’s annual property tax jumped 124 percent, to $1,919.

At issue is the assessment of the family’s deer camp, a 564-square-foot structure Chase said is wrongly being classified as a homestead.

“I cannot live in it at all. It’s just a storage place. No one has ever lived in there,” Chase told Vermont Watchdog.

“We built it in 1953, and it’s just four walls and a floor and a cement cellar. It has no electricity, water or sewage — (it’s) just a deer camp, as defined by the state.”

Prior to the townwide reappraisal in 2013, Chase’s property was valued at $74,000. The new assessment spiked the value to $94,000. Although a grievance filed with the listers and the Board of Civil Authority brought the valuation down to $91,400, Chase has appealed his case to to the state Property Valuation and Review Division of the Department of Taxes.

According to Chase, the structure on his property should be assessed as a “deer camp” — an unoccupied structure listed under vacant land in the 2008 Vermont Listers Handbook.

FED-UP: Tom Chase drove his Ford F-350 1,340 miles across the Green Mountain State, visiting 19 towns, to find out his property is worth far less than what the town of Townshend claims.

“Because I had the building, the listers said I had two acres around the building for a homestead, which it has never been. They assessed those at like $11,000 an acre — that’s $22,000 right there,” Chase said.

Among states, Vermont ranks near the bottom when it comes to taxes. The Tax Foundation’s 2014 edition of the State Business Tax Climate Index ranks Vermont as 48 out of 50 states in property tax affordability. Only New Jersey and Connecticut have a worse ranking.

Robin O’Neill, a member of the Towshend Board of Listers, acknowledged Chase’s dispute and said the board was waiting to hear back from the state’s hearing officer.

“We had a townwide reappraisal in 2013. This is the result of that. The prior value to the current one would have been from the 2007 reappraisal,” she said. “In Tom Chase’s case, and in several others, he had gone through grievance, the Board of Civil Authority and state appeal. The results of his state appeal are still pending.”

When asked for the prior valuation of Chase’s property and an explanation for the higher assessment, O’Neill initially told Vermont Watchdog she would provide that information. However, O’Neill later said the board of listers held a quorum and decided against discussing Chase’s case by phone.

Convinced his property’s fair market value was well below $91,400, Chase contacted real estate firm Barrett & Valley Associates in Springfield and obtained a list of 19 comparable sales in the state.

Comps in hand, Chase, 74, drove his Ford F-350 a total of 1,340 miles across the Green Mountain State to see what his property was really worth. Chase provided Vermont Watchdog with that list of properties by town.

COMPS DON'T LIE: A review of comparable properties sold in 19 towns across Vermont shows the fair market value of Chase's property in West Townshend may not exceed $69,000. (Click to enlarge)

COMPS DON’T LIE: A review of comparable properties sold in 19 towns across Vermont shows the fair market value of Chase’s property in West Townshend may not exceed $69,000. (Click to enlarge)

As the data indicates, comparable properties sold at an average price of about $69,000. Chase said fair market value of his property shouldn’t exceed the value of those comps, as the dwellings on those properties have electric, water and sewage.

“Based on the fair market value on properties that are sold I would be lucky if I could get $60,000 for the place,” he said.

The case comes down to what constitutes a “homestead.”

According to Jim Knapp, interim director at the state Division of Property Valuation and Review, Vermont defines a homestead as the “principal dwelling and parcel of land surrounding the dwelling, owned by a resident individual on April 1, and occupied as the individual’s domicile for a minimum of 183 days out of the calendar year.”

Asked if an unoccupied deer camp meets the state’s definition, Knapp replied, “The legal concept of domicile is the place that you intend to be your residence … it’s your home, even though you may temporarily be away. The concepts are owned and occupied as domicile. …A hunting camp is clearly not (a domicile), because you don’t occupy that as your residence.”

However, Knapp added that some towns use another definition of “homestead,” which may apply.

“At a local level, when they do assessments for tax purposes in some towns, if you own a piece of land big enough to develop for a home, even if it isn’t presently developed as a home, they may very well assign a homestead value.”

Under that definition, towns may assign a higher value to one or two acres of the property owner’s total acreage simply because a house could be built, even though the owner has no such intentions.

“You could, in theory, build on this property — and that has a value. So you’ll see cases where even bare land may have a housesite or a homestead area that can be developed, and that is assigned a higher value,” Knapp said.

Chase didn’t say what he will do if the state rejects his appeal. If the appeal is unfavorable, the case could go to court, and eventually to the state Supreme Court. Chase said he’s on solid legal ground due to Ames v. Town of Danby, a state Supreme Court decision from 1978 that deemed property assessments from other towns as relevant to fair market value.

Meanwhile, the property owner claimed his year-long struggle and mounting expenses were the fault of uninformed listers.

“O’Neill said she drove by — she never looked in or on the property — and she said I had part-time occupancy,” Chase said. “Why did they say I had part-time occupancy, which I never had? So they could classify it as a homestead, which boils down to a lot of high valuation on the two acres.”

Contact Bruce Parker at bparker@watchdog.org

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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