Saturday, November 26, 2005

It’s Not Where You Are, It’s What You See

In a stunning victory for panoramic views, New Hampshire has made it legal for townships to adjust assessed property values according to the view.


Nhview1Look out now, every burg with a panorama from Sitka, Alaska to Jackson, Wyoming is going to climb onboard this clever new source of income. To a substantial degree of course, all the ‘last best places’ already have a vista tax, in that it’s decidedly more expensive as one moves from ground floor to penthouse of a tall apartment building. Likewise, a home on a lake or abutting undeveloped and unspoiled countryside brings more on the real estate market than one without such benefits.


This added value though is established in the marketplace, not by the assessor. A four-bedroom, 3,000 square foot house that brings a premium price because of its location will pay more taxes then one that does not. The key is that magic phrase, worth more in the market.


Unless you live in New Hampshire.


Brad Wilder’s Plainfield, New Hampshire home enjoys a view not all that uncommon in that pretty and  mountainous state, but one that would surely stun a flat-lander. Every October, leaf-peepers come from as far as Chicago just to enjoy the vibrantly beautiful fall colors. But, according to David Fahrenthold’s Washington Post article, the town of Plainfield assessed Brad's view at $237,265. They didn’t assess the house at that value, they said the view was worth that, down to the last five bucks. An additional $4,700 in property taxes is demanded of Brad for that vista, on top of his prior tax assessment.


This is the sort of story that just makes you shake your head, similar to news items that surface from time to time about thieves who steal a car, wreck it, then sue the owner for damages . . . and collect.


Nhview2But the damaging part to me in this whole scenario, is that New Hampshire residents, people who have lived there for generations are being forced to move because the house they’ve lived in for sixty years is suddenly discovered to have a view. Certainly a retired person of any average circumstance has a hard enough time riding off into a New Hampshire sunset, without some smiling assessor rapping at the door.


Obviously there are no rules and no definitive guidelines for this kind of thing, it's all subjective and because of that may ultimately fail in the courts. Tom Holmes, assessor for Conway, New Hampshire says "It's more of an 'I know it when I see it' kind of thing." Well, I don’t know about you, but that would certainly be enough for me. Enough to make me reach for my shotgun anyway.


According to the article, Bennet Nicholson's view of the Connecticut River valley bumped his property value from $98,000 in 2002 to about $273,000 in 2003. 300% in a year! Nicholson said "There's no way that I could pay $10,000 a year in taxes." He left the house where he had planned to spend the rest of his life and moved to Canada's Prince Edward Island.


Elected officials decided this nonsense, ostensibly because New Hampshire has no sales or income tax and depends upon real estate taxes. It would seem the logical remedy would be to increase all property taxes by whatever needed percentage instead of piling on an accidental circumstance that punishes the few. The nearsighted legislators think they’re properly soaking some rich Bostonians who come up to buy second or retirement homes, but in fact they’re driving out their own residents.


There will no doubt be many failing to be re-elected for these reasons, but lots of damage will already have been done. Taxes cannot be left in arrears while legislation changes. Many, like Bennet Nicholson will be long gone. There will be hard feelings and people come to blows who have been neighbors.


A sunset tax is a tax increase with a limited term. But I wouldn’t use the term in New Hampshire, it might give them ideas. A new revenue source for all west-facing properties. Another $100,000 for watching the sun go down.
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There are lots more Things That Make Me Nuts, all of them on my personal web site.