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Supreme Court rules on two tax appeals

 

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04/24/2008

By Lisa Loomis

The Vermont Supreme Court has rule on two long-contested legal battles over how Waitsfield performs maintenance appraisals and creates equalized values for property tax appraisals.

In both cases, the Supreme Court remanded parts of the decisions back to Superior Court. The first case involves John and Murilla Dewey and a two-part appeal of the town's appraisal and assessment methodology on their 70-acre parcel on the Common Road in Waitsfield. The court remanded parts of their appeals and reversed others.

The Deweys appealed the town's 2002 appraisal of their property at $1,394,600, to Vermont Superior Court in August 2002. The case was delayed until 2005 when the court ruled with the town on both the appraisal methodology as well as the way the town determined fair market value, using the Common Level of Appraisal, or CLA.

PRIOR THREE YEARS

The CLA is used by the state in determining statewide property tax values. It assesses tax rates and real estate sales for the prior three years to determine how close a town is to having its property assessed at 100 percent of fair market value. The issue of whether it is appropriate to use the CLA or some other method was part of the Dewey's 2002 appeal.

The Supreme Court, in the Dewey case, combined two appeals, one from the Superior Court case and the other from the Dewey's appeal of their 2005 appraisal value of $1,329,000. In the 2005 appeal, the Deweys initially took their appeal to the Vermont state tax appraiser, Merle Van Gieson, who heard it in October 2006 and in November 2006 issued a decision setting the appraisal for the property at $1,775,000 and, using an equalized value of 47.80 percent, said the property was valued at $848,500.

That appraisal was appealed by the town which argued that the proper equalization ratio was 70.16 percent while the Dewey's expert, Tom Vickery, argued that the correct equalization ratio should have been 49.49 percent.

BROADEST MEASURE

Van Gieson testified that a town's CLA provides the broadest measure of equalization and argued that sales over a three-year period provide the best statistical sampling. He found that an average ratio of all sales in all property categories in the town in the year prior to April 1, 2005, was 50.60 percent and adjusted the ratio for increasing property values of 1 percent a month to arrive at his 47.80 percent equalization ratio.

The Supreme Court found the Dewey's arguments on their first appeal to be without merit, noting that the Dewey's contention that the town was wrong to rely on the CLA to determine appraisal values, were without merit.

"Taxpayers' remaining challenges to Fair Market Value (FMV) are equally without merit. The Superior Court was presented with competing evidence as to FMV and it found the town's evidence more persuasive," the court wrote.

"Taxpayers essentially ask this court to reweigh the evidence and reach a conclusion opposite to that of the Superior Court. This we will not do," the justices wrote in their ruling.

WHAT RATIO IS CORRECT?

At the heart of both of the Dewey appeals is the matter of what equalization ratio is correct. The court notes that when determining assessed values, current market value and current appraised value of comparable properties must be compared to create an equalization rate. That rate is applied to the fair market value of a property to determine the proper appraised value. The court further noted that the law does not require any single method of equalization and declined to "dictate how equalization should be accomplished."

The town raised the question of how Van Giesen determined his equalization ratio, arguing that he should have used the state's 2004 CLA of 70.16 percent, rather than the 47.80 percent he calculated using all sales in the year prior to 2005, adjusted at a rate of 1 percent a month. The Supreme Court rejected all parts of the town's argument except one.

STUDY OF SALES

"We find no error in the state appraiser's conclusion that the most relevant data in this case was derived from a study of sales within one year of the appraisal date. As reflected in his decision, the appraiser was persuaded by taxpayers' export that home values were rapidly rising in the town, and thus, that recent data provided a more reliable and accurate equalization ratio. It is for the appraiser, as the trier of fact, to weigh the evidence, and we find the reasons underlying the appraiser's decision to use sale occurring one year before the appraisal date sufficiently explained," the justices wrote.

They point out that the town raised a valid question in questioning whether it was appropriate for Van Giesen to factor the equalization ratio down by one percent a month to make his appraisal more precise. The court agreed with the town that the use of the townwide CLA can be an appropriate tool for creating equalized values but did not agree that Van Giesen's use of the 59 sales that took place prior to April 2005 was wrong.

SIMILARILY RAPID RATE

"As noted above, in the first appeal, the Superior Court applied an equalization ratio derived from a three-year study of sales. Because there was evidence presented to the Superior Court that residential property in the town was experiencing a similarly rapid rate of appreciation prior to April 2002, it appears that the most accurate equalization ratio would be derived from all sales, adjusted for time if appropriate, occurring in the year prior to -- or the six-month period before and after -- the April 1, 2002, appraisal date. We therefore reverse and remand for the application of such an equalization ratio, subject to any arguments that might be raised as to why such an equalization ratio is inappropriate on the facts of this case," the court wrote.

The Superior Court's decision on the 2002 value of the Dewey property was reversed and remanded and Van Giesen's decision on the 2005 value of the Dewey property was remanded for additional findings on whether a time adjustment is appropriate.

The second case, Bob and Candice Shaffer's appeal of their 2005 appraisal, also hinged on how the town determines the equalization ratios. The Shaffers appealed their 2005 appraisal and had it heard by Van Giesen. They challenged his methodology in determining listed value. The town cross appealed, arguing that Van Giesen erred in how he created an equalization ratio. The court agreed that Van Giesen erred in creating the equalization ration and reversed and remanded it.

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