Rural Pay Per View

Orford — December 28, 2005 — John Bouzoun’s hilltop home here has two bedrooms; two bathrooms and a barn. The retiree thought the place was fairly modest, but according to a recent assessment by the town, his “little dream house” is worth a half-million dollars.

Assessors valued his property and land at $300,000 and then slipped on an extra $200,000 for the panoramic view of Mount Cube and Smarts Mountain. Bouzoun, who received his property tax bill this month, was shocked to learn he owes the town more than $8,000.

“It’s pretty scary,” the 61-year-old said. “I’m not a rich man by any stretch.”

Appealing scenery is not hard to find in Orford, a picturesque small town on the Connecticut River where the White Mountains beckon in the distance. There are weathered barns and quaint silos, brooks cascading over ledges, and stately 19th-century houses framing the tidy town common.

While locals acknowledge that the views add some value to property, many say they have been hit hard by what they call “view taxes” as a result of a re-assessment last summer. Assessors have unfairly overvalued the views from their homes, and no one has been able to explain why some views are worth more than others, some angry residents said. Their demands for a more transparent system have reached the State House.

State Representative Betsey Patten, chairwoman of the state board that oversees property assessments, agrees that the state should explain more clearly the values placed on views. But she objects to the phrase “view tax.”

“It’s really an adjustment factor, whether [property] is on the ocean or in the mountains,” Patten said. “The value of a property has three aspects: location, location, location.”

Call it what you like, responds Jim Thomson, an Orford tree farmer who spearheaded the recent protest by starting a petition and printing green-and-white “Ax the View Tax” bumper stickers.

“Spin it any way you want,” said Thomson, the plain-spoken son of the late Meldrim Thomson Jr., the three-term Republican governor known for his conservative views.

“This isn’t the Beltway, folks; it’s rural New Hampshire, and at $17 per $1,000 of value, at the end of the day, that’s a view tax.”

Views have long been factored into property values, assessors say, because they affect the prices buyers are willing to pay. As buyers have paid more for hilltop houses and land in western New Hampshire in recent years, the assessments of neighboring properties have jumped, driving more property owners to question the spiraling values.

To gauge the value of specific views, assessors study recent sales of nearby properties with similar views, explained Gary Roberge, chief executive of Avitar Associates, a company that assesses properties in 110 New Hampshire towns, including Orford.

Assessors start with the total price paid for each property, then subtract the assessed value of land and buildings. The sum left over is considered the sale price for the view. Assessors in Massachusetts use a similar method to place values on views, a spokeswoman for the Division of Local Services said.

In New Hampshire, the richest mountain view set by Avitar is worth about $450,000, Roberge said. Still, inland values lag behind the coast. Ocean views run as high as $750,000.

“An extraordinary view of the mountains 18 years ago might have been valued at $30,000 or maybe $50,000, and now they’re up to $200,000 and $300,000 because of what people are willing to pay, Roberge said.

Critics of this method of assessment say there is no way to know how much of a sale price was paid for the view. They suggest that buyers might be shelling out six figures to protect their privacy or to hand something down to their grandchildren, instead.

And they say they are baffled by the glaring inconsistencies in recent assessments. The vista from Indian Pond Road, which some consider the most breathtaking in Orford – a vast patch¬work of farmland rolling away to a grand sweep of mountains – was assessed at $50,000 while more pedestrian scenery elsewhere was tagged at twice the value, Thomson said.

Thompson, whose 86-year-old mother was assessed $100,000 for her distant view of Mount Moosilauke, believes views should be valued on a simple three-step scale, with minor views at $5,000, medium views at $15,000, and top views at $30,000.

The caps on values should be set by legislators, who are directly accountable to taxpayers, he said. If the rocketing values of rural views are not controlled, tourism will suffer in the long run, as tax-burdened property owners sell off their land to developers, Thomson said.

“Tourists don’t come to New Hampshire for malls and subdivisions.” he said. “It’s the unique views of fields and farmsteads they love. Tourism is our number one industry, and if we continue down this path we will destroy it.”

In Orford, selectmen first refused to use the new property assessments because of concern about errors and inconsistencies. Called before the state Board of Tax and Land Appeals to explain their rebellion, town officials were ordered to issue tax bills based on the controversial assessments.

Meanwhile, a property owner from nearby Plainfield went to court to challenge the value placed on his view by Avitar’s assessors – and won a significant reduction from a judge who found his view of Mount Ascutney had been over-valued.

As a result of the uproar, the state’s Assessing Standards Board is reviewing the concerns about view assessments and must report back to the Legislature with recommended changes by Feb. 1. If the deadline is not met, lawmakers will take over the task.

Residents can ask selectmen to adjust their property values, but they must prove that their assessment is in error, said Selectman David Bischoff of Orford. Bischoff has notified some property owners of errors and plans to comb through more town records next week to look for other problems.

Allan Wilson, 78, was the first property owner to request an adjustment. He said he was “flabbergasted” to learn that his rustic hunting camp, with three rooms and no electricity, was valued at almost $100,000, including $50,000 for a view that can barely be seen through the trees in the summer.

Wilson said he probably can’t afford the taxes on the camp, but doubts he could find a buyer for something so overvalued. “I’m stuck in the middle,” he said.

Patten said some property owners want to have it both ways. “When they’re here, they want the smallest assessment, but when they want to move, they want to get the most they can,” she said.

But Thomson said it’s the state that wants the double benefit, by taxing property owners for the rural character that already brings in revenue from tourists.

His 86-year-old mother, who I runs a maple syrup business from her 19th-century farmhouse, gazed out her picture window last week at the familiar mountains.

“I’ve always loved the view, but $100,000 did strike a blow,” Gale Thomson said. “This was here long before we were.”

Rural Pay Per View