State Appellate Tax Board Hears Testimony in West Tisbury Case

By IAN FEIN

BOSTON - Attorneys for Island resident William W. Graham charged in a legal hearing this week that West Tisbury assessors deliberately falsified property records that inflated his land values and increased his taxes.

"At heart this case is about fraud," Mr. Graham's attorney, Richard Wulsin, told the chairman of the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board.

"Accusations of falsifying property record cards are very serious," replied attorney Ellen Hutchinson, who represents the town's board of assessors. "Assessors take the oath of office to carry out their duties to fairly and accurately reflect the values of all properties in town."

The comments came during the first day of an appellate tax board hearing that began Tuesday in Boston with chairman Anne Foley presiding. The board is a quasi-judicial state agency that hears and decides tax appeals.

After three days of lengthy testimony from West Tisbury assessor Michael Colaneri and selectman John Early, Mr. Graham's attorneys have not rested their case and much of the town's defense is yet to be heard.

The hearing will resume in Boston on Tuesday and is expected to last well into next week, if not beyond.

Key witnesses JoAnn Resendes, the town's principal assessor, and Mr. Graham are expected to take the stand next week.

Attorneys from both sides agreed in their opening statements that this was an unusual case.

Mr. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, is seeking a reduction of his property taxes for fiscal years 2003 and 2004. Mr. Wulsin said this week that, compared to similar properties in town, he believes the disproportionate values of Mr. Graham's lots will shock the board.

In 2002 the assessed value of Mr. Graham's lots nearly tripled from $18.5 million to $53.7 million, while his annual property tax bills almost doubled from $130,000 to more than $250,000. In 2003 Mr. Graham's West Tisbury property taxes went up again to more than $280,000.

Mr. Wulsin said that the sharp increase in 2002 was due in large part to a falsified record card for a nearby property which, he alleged, assessors altered in an attempt to match a predetermined value. Town assessments are required by law to represent fair market value.

An enlarged reproduction of that card, presented at the hearing as an exhibit by Mr. Wulsin, indicates that during the 2002 revaluation assessors reclassified 60 acres of a neighboring waterview property as no longer having a view.

Called as a town selectman but questioned more about experiences in his private construction business, Mr. Early testified the property did indeed have a water view.

Mr. Wulsin said town assessors and their third-party consultant, Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. of Northboro, changed the information on the record card so they could use the nearby sale of another waterfront property to determine the relative real estate market for the area along the north shore of West Tisbury near Paul's Point.

According to Mr. Wulsin, the decision allowed assessors to value properties in that area nearly twice as high on a per acre basis as elsewhere in town. Mr. Graham's seven contiguous lots fall within that neighborhood, as defined by the assessors.

The two waterfront properties near Paul's Point that sold in the summer of 1999 were an 81-acre parcel for roughly $12 million and a 12-acre parcel for roughly $10 million.

"You could draw a lot of different conclusions about those two sales - and what's interesting is the conclusions drawn by the assessors," Mr. Wulsin said in his opening statement. "If they had not changed this card, the assessment on the [81-acre] property would have come out at $20 million instead of $12 million, which would have alerted the state that there was something wrong with what they were doing."

Ms. Hutchinson countered that the Massachusetts Department of Revenue approved and certified the town's triennial revaluation in 2002, and that any changes to property record cards occurred as part of that recertification process.

"This is not a question of assessors falsifying records; this is a question of what land valuation model was used," Ms. Hutchinson said of the methods by which assessors and their consultant determined property values. "Land valuation models by their very nature can and must change - especially in the case of a rising market, as we see here in West Tisbury."

Ms. Hutchinson argued the sales justified increasing assessments in the area, including those of Mr. Graham's properties.

"The assessors see these two sales, the size of which has never been seen before, and see them in that neighborhood," Ms. Hutchinson said. "It tells the assessors that there's something different and something unusual going on. This has become a very exclusive neighborhood of very expensive properties."

Chairman Foley has been actively engaged in the hearing, often interrupting attorneys' interrogations of witnesses to ask follow up questions.

Mr. Graham's attorney also argued the assessors chose to ignore facts about his properties, specifically the presence of wetlands and rights of way, which would have lowered property values.

According to testimony from Mr. Colaneri, who is chairman of the West Tisbury board of assessors, the town has a policy to value wetlands at $500 per acre. Island land surveyor Douglas Hoehn testified on Tuesday that he compiled site plans for Mr. Graham that conservatively identified extensive wetlands throughout the northern portions of his properties.

Mr. Colaneri said that the assessors often rely on Mr. Hoehn's work, and that Mr. Graham presented the site plans to the board in May 2003. However, wetlands credits did not appear on Mr. Graham's property record cards until the 2005 revaluation.

After the close of the hearing, Chairman Foley and at least one other appellate tax board commissioner will travel to the Vineyard to view Mr. Graham's and other properties in West Tisbury.

A decision by the appellate tax board is expected within three to six months after the hearing closes.