Resident fights for abatement on conservation land

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OTISFIELD — The owner of 56 acres of conservation land will appeal to the state for relief of the town’s appraisal that she says is $267,000 too high.

Ethel Bean Turner was denied a tax abatement on the town’s $319,285 assessment of 56 acres of mostly wooded land at Long Point on Thompson Lake. Turner’s appraiser set the value at $52,500.

The property, which was placed under conservation easement through the Western Foothills Land Trust in 2011, includes more than 1,500 feet of shore land on Thompson Lake and Sand Island off Otisfield Cove. There is no structure on it.

On March 11, the Board of Selectmen and the town’s assessors, John E. O’Donnell & Associates of Portland, met with Turner during the abatement hearing. Neither side budged on their valuation.

Turner said she is appealing the local decision to the state.

Selectmen say until that happens, they will stick with their decision.

“We have no choice but to honor our paid assessor’s opinion,” Selectman Rick Micklon said Monday. “If the state finds fault with our assessing we will adjust accordingly with no ill feelings. We simply want to do what best for the taxpayers.”

What followed the abatement hearing was a series of emails between Turner and the board, in which she claimed the selectmen and their assessor were “careless and unsupportive” of her efforts to conserve lakeside land.

“This is an example of how the process discourages local shore land owners from protecting this important town resource, which has brought many tourists into the area since the 1930s, with many of them purchasing property in town or nearby towns around the lake, thereby contributing greatly to the local economy and especially the town’s tax base,” Turner said in an email to the Advertiser Democrat.

Micklon denies he and other board members have tried to stymie her efforts to protect the land. Instead, in an email to Turner, he said the board asked the assessors to do, “whatever they could in assisting you to achieve your goals as long as they met the current standards of today’s assessing standards.”

“My concern is that there should be a formula for logic and fairness included in the process,” Turner wrote.

Many towns in Maine still do not have full-time professional assessors on board, but officials agree that the days of selectmen piling into a pickup truck to drive around town to put a value on property are gone.

Today, selectboards usually subcontract with an assessing agent to appraise properties.

In the case of Otisfield, Micklon said the town pays $15,000 for the services of John E. O’Donnell & Associates, which provides the town with “the best of everything,” including countless years of broad experience that includes work for many other municipalities state-wide.

Because of that expertise, Micklon said the board almost always agrees with the professional assessor’s decision.

“The business of assessing property is very complex and often changing and challenging process,” said Micklon in a statement he read to his fellow board members in early April. “It’s nearly impossible for a Board of Selectmen to fully understand its complexities, which is why many small towns without a town manger and full-time assessor chose to hire that service out to assessing firms such as John E. O’Donnell & Associates.”

In that statement, Micklon recommended taxpayers get a third party assessor to assist them before agreeing to any change in the property ownership, land use, tax status or possible tax implications rather than ask the board for advise.

Selectmen Chairman Hal Ferguson said he intends to review Micklon’s statement at a board meeting in the near future and consider adopting it as board policy.

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Micklon’s Statement

The following is the text of Selectman Rick Micklon’s statement to fellow board members and residents that he read into the public record at the April 1 Selectmen’s meeting.

Micklon said he hopes the statement serves as an educational outline for any future discussions between taxpayers and town officials about land status or tax abatements.

“The business of assessing property is very complex and often changing and challenging process. It’s nearly impossible for a Board of Selectmen to fully understand its complexities, which is why many small towns without a town manager and a full-time assessor choose to hire that service out to assessing firms such as John E. O’Donnell & Associates.

“Neither the town assessor presently, O’Donnell & Associates, town employees nor the Selectmen advise taxpayers on what the best use of their land would be, should they wish to change its status as tree growth, conservation easement, forever wild, etc.

“If and when the tax abatement application is submitted to the town, the Selectmen will request the assistance of the assessor in establishing proper process and procedure.

“Should the abatement process result in an actual hearing, the Selectmen will request that the assessor attend the hearing so that the taxpayer’s position and possible points of argument can be addressed using standard assessing principals.

“This Selectman position and vote regarding the abatement request will nearly always reflect that of the professional assessor.

“Should the taxpayer decide to appeal the board’s position, which is their right to do so, this selectman will then reconsider his position and vote to reflect the results of the State Board of Assessors ruling.

“At no time during the abatement process, as described above in #3 through #6 will this selectman act carelessly, be unsupported of the taxpayers’ rights, act disrespectfully to the taxpayer nor portray any abusive behavior what so ever.

“In closing, I’d highly recommend to any and all taxpayers/land owners in Otisfield to please seek the help of a third party prior to agreeing to any change in the property ownership, land use and/or town tax status or possible tax implications. Please do not ask the town of Otisfield for assistance or advise.

“We will simply review and act on any abatement applications and treat all applicants the same, regardless of their property size (and) value and past or present use. This board makes no judgments on why or how a landowner chooses to use or designate their private property. We serve all the residents and answer to all the voters as we conduct the business of the town as the elected Board of Selectmen.”