Ossipee — December 3, 2005 — Jean Hansen runs a web-based stencil design business. George Eisener is a builder. The two hard-driving entrepreneurs live on a desirable road in a part of town that has seen its lakefront land values explode in recent years.
Taxes on their homes have nearly doubled since 2001. In that time the town’s assessments on their 100-by-200-foot lots have increased roughly fivefold. Four years ago, Hansen’s lot was worth $115,000 — her tax card now lists the land at a dizzying $666,000, plus another $217,000 for her Cape-style home.
The two are deeply troubled by the waterfront phenomenon, which this year again jacked up half-acre lot values by nearly double in their Ossipee Lake neighborhood, from $380,000 in 2004. They say their incomes are still enough to pay their taxes. But Hansen turns 70 in December, and Eisener hits 80 next week.
Both grandparents, they say decades of hard work put them where they are, on Long Sands Road, on the singular shores of Ossipee’s largest lake. No retirement is in sight for these two. Both plan to “work to the end” to keep what they have.
And they say they will need to, in order to pay their taxes. Hansen this year will pay roughly $11,000 in property taxes; Eisener just under $10,000.
“I am working to stay at the house,” Hansen said. “How many 70-year-old grandmothers do you know that do this kind of thing? I’m not complaining. I’m just lucky to live in this beautiful place.”
She runs a cottage stencil design company out of her home, does all of her own shipping and packing, and drives a van to Connecticut each month to teach.
“I am going to work to the end,” she said. “It will be a challenge for me. But I’m determined to do it for as long as I can.”
Eisener, a general contractor, built his own home on Long Sands Road in 1958, and just recently built his latest in the neighborhood of about 28 houses. The new one will soon go on the market, Hansen said.
“I didn’t buy my house to make money,” said Eisener, a Massachusetts resident who has brought his family to the lake for decades. “I, like Jeanie, have to keep working if I want to stay there.”
Some Forced Out
But some of their retired neighbors are in trouble, and some have already left. The neighborhood will soon have seen a 30 percent turnover in the last six months, Hansen said. Six out of the seven properties sold or currently on the market were owned by year-round residents forced out by taxes.
“One of them left crying,” Eisener said. “She said, ‘I expected to spend the rest of my life here.’ But she couldn’t do it. We had a dinner for her.”
Eisener in part blames the town’s tax assessments, which selectmen admit again hammered lakefront homeowners. “One third went down, one third went up and one third stayed the same,” selectman Joe Skehan said just before tax bills went out in November. “If you lived on the lake you got hammered.”
“That’s the reason they left,” Eisener said.
He and Hansen say Long Sands Road has in the past been singled out for tax increases. This year, they asked the board to revisit the recent assessments on their street, and bring them in line with current sales values. Four out of the five homes that sold in this latest rash of turnovers went at prices below the assessed values assigned by the town this year.
In 1998, the two say, the town reassessed only their neighborhood, based on two homes that sold over assessed values. The resulting revaluation raised home values on the entire road, and taxes, they said.
Neighborhood Revaluation Requested
Representing about 15 members of the newly re-formed Long Sands Road Association, Hansen and Eisener asked selectmen on Monday to do it again, this time in reverse, to lower their taxes.
“You did it to us in 1998, do it to us again,” Eisener said.
Town Hall Friday reported staff is researching whether a Long Sands-only revaluation ever took place. Selectmen could not confirm it happened in that year. Selectmen’s chair Peter Olkkola said the board will sit down with the town’s hired assessing firm to review the request. He said the association can expect a response in “a couple of weeks.”
Olkkola said high taxes are increasingly hard on people in all areas of town, and from all walks of life.
“People have come up to me and said, ‘I can’t pay my taxes.’ These are the people we have to worry about,” he said.
“It’s going to get to a point where people are not going to be able to live here. That would be a sad state of affairs,” Olkkola said.
Spending Controls Needed
Outside of a fix by the N.H. Legislature to the state’s property tax system, Olkkola said the first thing Ossipee should do is cut local budgets.
“The only way to control it is to cut back on spending,” he said. “You can always cut somewhere.”
Hansen agreed, saying fixed incomes failed to absorb the latest round of tax hikes, resulting in the home sales.
“These are retirees hoping to spend their last days here. They are all on limited incomes and they just can’t swing it,” Hansen said.
“In spite of what the town thinks, we are not all wealthy people. We are here because we worked 24/7 every day of our lives, some of us for 45 years,” she said.
High Taxes, Little Return
Despite their increasingly high share of the tax burden, the lake’s older residents claim they consume few town services. And those who are part-timers don’t get a vote at town meeting — only full-time residents do.
“We don’t get education services, our kids aren’t in school, we don’t get social services. Here the town is getting all this money for very little in return,” she said. “We get town plowing, and dump stickers that cost $5.”
Beach Costs At Issue
The Long Sands Road Association, which opposes a town proposal to build a public beach next to their neighborhood, says that project will serve to further hike their taxes.
Hansen said the group’s opposition to a vote of town meeting that pledged $20,000 toward the beach is not an effort, as some charge, to keep locals out of the lake. The added tax impact, if the project moves forward, would just be too high, she said.
“It’s silly to spend all this money,” Hansen said. “I don’t think all these people on the lake don’t want them to have access to the lake.”
Some have labeled the battle over the beach, one of “haves” against “have-nots.” Supporters have rebuked outspoken lakefront homeowners, some from out of state, for trying to keep Ossipee’s less affluent, landlocked locals, from swimming in the town’s largest lake.
Harry Merrow, the selectman driving the beach effort, said he expect grants to pay for some construction, and that the overall cost of building and maintaining the beach will not overwhelm taxpayers. And he said, the vast majority of voters in town back the proposal, which remains in a study phase.
“We will have to lay it all out for town meeting, all the costs. They will have to approve it,” Merrow said. “I will not be for it if it is wildly expensive.”
He also has said rising property taxes are a problem. As homeowners sell more homes at higher and higher prices, values and taxes go up. The troubling trend, while profitable for some sellers, is driving full-time residents off Ossipee Lake, Merrow said.
“I feel sorry for the older people being forced out, that’s a problem,” he said. “But not for those who come up here from out of state and buy a vacation home.”
He said he sympathizes with Hansen, a full-time resident, and Eisener, a 50-year homeowner.
“The reason taxes have been going up is because of people selling and moving,” he said. If the assessor’s work is accurate, there is not much the board can do, he said. The state’s traditional property tax system is often blamed for forcing older citizens off increasingly valuable family homesteads and farms. Property taxes fund the bulk of local services, including schools.
Area officials have said the system was developed when the value of land was linked to its ability to produce profit, often in the form of crops. With the demise of small family farms, and the boom in residential development, some values, particularly of land with mountain views and waterfront, have spiraled to unseen heights. And taxes went with them.
Non-Residents Subsidize Others
While some of Ossipee’s older residents, who are hoping to hang onto their lakefront lots, struggle with spiking taxes, Eisener said other locals have seen tax reductions. As these taxes go down, he said, the added cost of the beach will look less imposing on their tax bills. Meanwhile, people like Eisener will keep paying more and more, he said, to make up the difference.
“If you want to buy a television that costs $4,000, you might not. But if somebody is going to give you $2,500, you might,” he said. “Outsiders pay 60 percent, so others whose taxes go down can afford to buy a beach.”
Town hall said it is nearly impossible to confirm Eisener’s claim that non-locals pay 60 percent.
The 28 homes on Long Sands Road, valued at roughly $23 million, represent 3 percent of the town’s tax base, according to a town hall study.
Properties on Ossipee Lake overall, the largest of the town’s many water bodies, last year made up 27 percent of the base, the study said. Staff said Thursday they are increasing the scope of the study, for which results should be available in several days.
Eisener said this year is the worst ever on Long Sands Road, and people are at their breaking point.
“This is just beyond beyond,” he said. “We can’t take another hit.”
He said if selectmen can’t help lower assessments, the association may petition the state. Eisener’s half acre, with 100 feet of lake frontage, which is now worth $666,000, in 1958 cost him $2,500. “And that is just the land, not the building,” Hansen said.
Both Merrow and Hansen said they expect Ossipee Lake homes will soon sell for no less that $1 million.