Key Witnesses End Longest Tax Appeal Case

By IAN FEIN

BOSTON - On the final day of a protracted property tax appeal hearing that poses broad implications for West Tisbury, selectman John Early yesterday undercut critical testimony from the town's principal assessor.

Mr. Early bracketed the case as both the first and last witness to testify in the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board hearing that began May 3 and became the longest and costliest residential property tax appeal in the history of the commonwealth.

Expected to last only several days, the hearing featured 36 days of testimony spread out over nearly four months; attorneys questioned more than a dozen witnesses and together produced some 450 pieces of evidence. Parties on both sides expressed relief yesterday that the testimony phase of the case was complete.

West Tisbury resident William W. Graham, who owns 235 acres at Mohu off Lambert's Cove Road, is challenging his assessments for fiscal years 2003 and 2004, when he paid the town more than a half-million dollars in property taxes. Attorneys for Mr. Graham have charged that the system town assessors use to determine land values and property taxes is fundamentally flawed.

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Tax board representatives are scheduled to visit the Vineyard later this month to view many of the properties discussed during the hearing. In lieu of closing arguments, attorneys on both sides will file closing briefs within two months after the final transcript is completed. Each side can then file a response brief within three weeks.

The entire five-member tax board will vote on the final ruling. The board historically issues decisions within three to six months.

South Mountain Company president John Abrams also took the stand as a rebuttal witness. Mr. Abrams testified about Island Co-housing, a unique 16-home affordable housing subdivision off Stoney Hill Road in West Tisbury built by South Mountain and completed in May 2001. He testified that the affordable prices were not market-driven, but depended on owner relationships. His testimony appeared to undercut earlier testimony from West Tisbury principal assessor JoAnn Resendes, who said she had used the co-housing sales to form almost 25 per cent of the so-called market sales presented to the Massachusetts Department of Revenue during the town recertification process.

Mr. Abrams also testified that town assessors never contacted him to ask about the transactions.

Mr. Early's testimony supported key elements of Mr. Graham's case and again raised questions of possible perjury by Ms. Resendes, a central witness for the town's case.

Attorney Richard Wulsin, who represents Mr. Graham, tried on the first day of the hearing to ask Mr. Early questions about his work as a general contractor on properties that sold in recent years near the lots owned by Mr. Graham. But attorney Ellen Hutchinson, who represents the town assessors, objected to the line of questioning because Mr. Early was identified in the witness list as a selectman and not a contractor.

After later testimony from witnesses on both sides of the case offered conflicting accounts about the timeline of tree clearing, water views and construction work that took place on those properties, Mr. Wulsin subpoenaed Mr. Early again as a rebuttal witness.

"Welcome back, Mr. Early," Mr. Wulsin said yesterday. "We've traveled a long way since we've seen you last, without going anywhere."

Mr. Early's testimony focused on a nearby 80-acre waterfront parcel near Paul's Point that has been at the center of the case.

Attorneys for Mr. Graham alleged in their opening statement that town assessors deliberately falsified the property record for the neighboring parcel by changing its classification from having a water view to no water view. The change allowed them to nearly triple many of the other property values in the area, including those owned by Mr. Graham.

Ms. Resendes, chief assessor for West Tisbury, and the town's third-party appraisal consultant both testified that their basis for changing the property record relied in part on what they saw during a visit to the property in March or April 2001. Attorneys for Mr. Graham openly challenged whether the visit actually took place.

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Documents produced by Mr. Early and his testimony yesterday cast serious doubt about the visit to the property by Ms. Resendes and the appraisal consultant, who was called to the stand earlier to testify as an expert on behalf of the assessors.

Ms. Resendes testified last month that the property was heavily wooded in the spring of 2001, with no clear view to the water. She said she saw no tree clearing on the property and described in detail the original house that once stood on the parcel. Ms. Resendes assured the state tax board that her recollection was from the 2001 visit and not from photographs in the assessors' records.

Mr. Wulsin introduced as evidence yesterday a large stack of invoices, provided by Mr. Early, from Island landscaper Brian Abbott and contractor Richard T. Olsen for work they did on the nearby 80-acre property between 1999 and 2001. Mr. Early testified and the invoices showed that clearing along the driveway was completed by July 2000, that the original house was demolished by September 2000 and that an 8,000-square-foot excavation for the basement of a new house was finished by April 2001.

Tax board chairman Anne Foley, who is presiding over the case, asked Mr. Early follow-up questions, specifically about the view.

"If you were driving up that road, as of July 2000, there would have been nothing between the driveway and the cleared meadow?" Chairman Foley asked.

"Maybe two holly trees and a few good oak trees that we left," Mr. Early replied.

"Would they block your view across that meadow?" she asked.

"No," he replied.

"Did you drive up the road during that time?" Chairman Foley followed.

"Daily," Mr. Early answered.

"Based on your own personal experience, was there a view of the water from the road?" she asked.

"Yes," Mr. Early replied.