Edgartown Assessors Move to Correct Chappaquiddick Property Value Errors

By IAN FEIN

Edgartown assessors this week corrected extensive errors made during the town's real estate revaluation last year, voting on Monday to lower the value of 79 Chappaquiddick properties by almost $95 million and to return almost $300,000 in property taxes.

Combined with corrections made earlier this spring, Edgartown assessors have now granted tax relief to 125 Chappaquiddick property owners - lowering their collective assessments by almost $150 million and agreeing to return more than $450,000 in collected taxes.

Assessors have also denied 28 tax relief requests from Chappaquiddick.

The vote on Monday represented a benchmark moment in a long process of property value corrections begun by assessors this winter, following a townwide revaluation last fall. According to assessors, Vision Appraisal Inc. of Northboro, a new third-party consultant hired by the town, overvalued much of the waterfront land on Chappaquiddick.

Edgartown assessors acknowledged in December that Vision Appraisal may have made some mistakes. In February they were flooded with a record number of 260 requests for property tax reductions, 160 of them from Chappaquiddick. Assessors said that in prior revaluation years when they did not use Vision Appraisal, they would typically see half that number of requests.

There are still a few more loose ends to tie up and tax relief applications to act on before the extended deadline of July 9, but for the most part assessors now must wait to see whether taxpayers challenge their lowered assessments at the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board.

Once assessors have acted on a tax relief request, taxpayers have three months to file with the appellate tax board, a quasi-judicial state agency that hears and decides local tax appeals.

As of yesterday only one Edgartown appeal for the current fiscal year appeared in the tax board's docket - Edgartown Lighthouse Nominee Trust challenging their $7.7 million assessment at 117 North Water street.

This winter the owners of more than 100 Chappaquiddick properties banded together and hired an attorney, Donald Quinn, to challenge their assessments. In May Mr. Quinn submitted to the assessors a long list of proposed values for his clients' lots, but on Monday assessors decided to stick with their own revised assessments instead.

So far, assessors have lowered the values of 125 Chappaquiddick properties from $510 million to $360 million, a reduction of almost 30 per cent. Assessors valued the same properties last year at $295 million.

Assessors said they were reluctant to grant the values requested by Mr. Quinn because he did not include any detailed information or reasoning behind the proposed assessments. Attorney Byron Adams, who works in Mr. Quinn's office, apologized to the assessors on Monday for the lack of detail.

"But you know how it is with litigation," Mr. Adams said. "From here it's in the clients' hands."

Mr. Adams and the assessors agreed that most of the revised values fell within the range proposed by Mr. Quinn, and they both pointed to the work of Vision Appraisal as the root of the problem.

"Vision Appraisal, from our perspective, caused you a lot of work," Mr. Adams said.

"We're not very happy with them," assessor Laurence A. Mercier replied.

"They caused us a lot of aggravation, and a lot of aggravation for the taxpayers too," said assessor Edward Belisle.

Mr. Mercier expressed his disappointment with Vision Appraisal earlier this spring, pointing to a number of areas in town where he believes the company made major errors. In response, Vision Appraisal president Kevin Comer offered to conduct the valuations on Chappaquiddick this year at no cost to the town.

Although Vision Appraisal district manager Stephen Ferreira apologized to the Edgartown assessors in April and acknowledged that he had made a mistake on Chappaquiddick, he maintained that the original assessments were the best the company could have done with the information available at the time.

Mr. Ferreira relied on the only two waterfront sales that occurred on Chappaquiddick that year to dramatically increase the values of most of the other waterfront properties on the Island. Subsequent sales the following year indicated that values should have been markedly less.

For example one property that was valued at more than $8 million sold last year for less than $3 million.

Vision Appraisal has assisted in revaluations for every other Island town except Chilmark.

The Northboro company has played a role in a hearing for a large and complex property tax appeal from the north shore in West Tisbury, set to resume its seventh week at the appellate tax board in Boston on Tuesday.

Attorneys for West Tisbury resident William W. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, have charged during the hearing that town assessors and Vision Appraisal overvalued land in the area by relying on only two waterfront sales and manipulating a property record to fit those sales.

In a meeting with the Edgartown assessors in March, Mr. Quinn charged that Vision Appraisal "jury-rigged" the neighborhood data on the two waterfront sales to make their model work.

It is now understood that Edgartown assessors followed Vision Appraisal's recommendations for dealing with the requests for property tax relief by lowering the relative neighborhood values for many Chappaquiddick properties.

A key component of the Graham case centers on neighborhood values; Mr. Graham's attorneys claim that the neighborhood values placed on the north shore near Paul's Point were too high.

Mr. Ferreira has attended every day of the Graham hearing since it began in May, and testified as one of the first witnesses.

In a telephone interview this spring, Mr. Ferreira said the West Tisbury and Edgartown situations are starkly different. He said subsequent waterfront sales in West Tisbury have justified the assessments, while subsequent sales on Chappaquiddick did the opposite.

In addition to the Chappaquiddick properties, Edgartown assessors granted 32 requests for property tax relief elsewhere in town - lowering their collective assessments by $19 million - and denied another 70.

All told, the Edgartown assessors have voted to return more than $500,000 in collected property taxes across town.

There will be no noticeable financial impact to the town because assessors set aside almost $340,000 this winter when they first realized the extent of the valuation errors. The additional $160,000 that needs to be raised will be redistributed across the town's entire tax base next year, and the impact on the tax rate is expected to be negligible.

A taxpayer challenge to the new assessment could mean higher legal bills for the town.

The attorney for the West Tisbury assessors, Ellen Hutchinson, also represents the Edgartown assessors.

West Tisbury selectmen are now concerned about legal bills; the town has already overspent its legal budget for the year before any bills have come in for the Graham hearing.

But it is not yet clear whether the Edgartown assessors will face more appeals.

"The clients on Chappy, they're just upset," Mr. Adams told the board on Monday.

"They have a right to be," Mr. Belisle said.

"It's a lot of money - a lot of money," Mr. Adams added.

"It sure is," Mr. Belisle replied.