Assessors in Edgartown Flooded with Requests for Property Tax Relief

By IAN FEIN

A property tax revolt is quietly brewing on Chappaquiddick, where a large group of landowners have banded together and hired an attorney to challenge their latest property assessments.

Prior to the deadline last Friday, the attorney delivered more than 100 abatement applications to the Edgartown assessors' office. Many other Chappaquiddick property owners, who did not join the group, also filed individual abatement requests.

Rising property taxes have stirred widespread discontent on the small island off the eastern end of Edgartown. Chappaquiddick assessments represent an increasing percentage of the total town valuation.

"This is very big and I think it's going to go on for a long time," said one Chappaquiddick resident who asked to remain unnamed. "Someone needs to take a careful look at these assessments and how they were put together."

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Waterfront property assessments soared in Edgartown this year, after town assessors contracted a third-party consultant - Vision Appraisal Technology of Northboro - to conduct their triennial revaluation. The increase was particularly acute in the North Neck neighborhood on Chappaquiddick, where some property values more than tripled.

A brief examination of the most recent assessors' data found that Elizabeth Villard's two contiguous lots at the northern end of North Neck more than doubled in value, from $2.7 million to $6.3 million. Three waterfront lots owned by the Plumb family on the southern end of North Neck Road jumped from $5.3 million to $15.8 million this year, resulting in almost $30,000 more in property taxes.

In December Edgartown assessors acknowledged that Vision Appraisal may have overvalued some North Neck properties.

The town has since been flooded with abatement applications, from both on and off Chappaquiddick. It is reported that there may be as many as 250 abatement requests in Edgartown, though the exact number was not available because the town board of assessors barred principal assessor William Pfluger from speaking to newspaper reporters.

Edgartown is the only Island town that would not release abatement numbers to the Gazette this week.

"We just feel right now it's going to be a long process," said Peter Clough, one of three elected Edgartown assessors. "And with all the lawyers - the Chappaquiddick crowd has hired a lawyer - we're not sure what it means and we need to be careful."

Mr. Clough would not say how many abatement applications had been filed, though he acknowledged that it might be a record number.

"I know it's a lot, and we will deal with each and every one," he said.

The other members of the board; assessors Laurence A. Mercier and Edward Belisle, were away on vacation and unavailable for comment. Mr. Clough said any further questions can be directed to the assessors at their next meeting on Feb. 28.

The Edgartown assessors will have three months to act on abatement applications, and it could prove to be a difficult task considering the amount of requests across town. Under Massachusetts law, abatement applications that are not processed within the three-month time frame are automatically denied.

It is understood that many of the Chappaquiddick property owners plan to appeal their cases to the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board, which could result in hefty legal bills for the town of Edgartown.

A complex property tax appeal in West Tisbury, set to go before the appellate tax board in May, has already cost that town more than $17,000 in assessors' legal fees.

Beyond Edgartown, Vineyard assessor offices report seeing fewer abatement requests this year than in previous revaluation years.

Oak Bluffs principal assessor Dianne Wilson said she received 55 abatement applications before the Feb. 1 deadline, which represents just over one per cent of the properties in town. Mrs. Wilson said the town had 72 requests last year.

West Tisbury principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes reported 54 abatement applications, or just under two per cent of town properties, which is almost half as many as the town received at the last revaluation in 2002.

Tisbury assessor Patricia Blakesley received 83 applications this year, or about 2.5 per cent of properties, slightly less than the amount from 2002.

In Chilmark, the only town that did not have to conduct a revaluation this year, assessor Pamela Bunker has seen only 15 abatement applications, which represents less than one per cent of town properties. After the town's last revaluation in 2003, she received 36 requests.

Aquinnah, meanwhile, has yet to send out its tax bills. Property owners have 30 days after receiving their bills to file for an abatement.