Alleging unfair valuation, Sullivan homeowners sue

By Rebecca Alley and Jennifer Osborn

SULLIVAN — The Hancock County Commissioners were served notice last week that Sullivan property owners Deb and James Knowlton have filed suit in Hancock County Superior Court seeking property tax relief.

The suit comes after commissioners on Nov. 3 denied a property tax abatement request for a Sullivan property the Knowltons purchased in June 2019.

While the commissioners indicated that they agreed that the property was assessed too highly for tax purposes, they said neighboring properties were assessed similarly.

The couple’s property assessment was “grossly wrong but it wasn’t unfair,” Chairman Bill Clark said. “Everybody else’s was grossly over assessed.”

At the Nov. 3 meeting, Clark had a message for the town of Sullivan: 

“If the town does not do a statewide revaluation sometime soon or make an adjustment in this tax neighborhood’s rate and we continue to get these dramatic disparities between the assessment and the appraisal…Sullivan may find the county and the Superior Court are going to start granting abatement requests,” he said.

The Knowltons subsequently “filed for a review under [Maine Rules of Civil Procedure] 80b,” Clark said. “It’s basically asking the court to review the same information we were given in the first place in the hopes the court will find a different resolution to it.”

Clark is concerned because an 80b case requires the county to hire an attorney who specializes in those types of civil cases.

“80b can be very expensive,” Clark said. “We’re going to have to spend taxpayer money to defend our decision.”

The Knowlton’s property, an approximately 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom ranch that sits on 4.3 acres overlooking Long Cove, was purchased by the couple in an online foreclosure auction for $68,250, according to deed records. 

When the tax bill came last December, Deb said she was surprised at the $6,325.44 bill, given the state of the structure and the fact that not all the land is buildable. 

She and her husband, who own a real estate business in New Hampshire, learned the property was assessed at $479,200 back in 2006, the most recent assessment for the town. 

So, the couple filed for a property tax abatement, hoping for a tax bill they felt more accurately reflected the property’s fair market value. The town of Sullivan denied the request.

The Knowltons then took their request to the Hancock County Commissioners. 

For the Nov. 3 meeting with the commissioners, the Knowltons hired Cathy Phillips, an appraiser from Fairmarket Appraisals in Mount Desert.

Phillips completed an appraisal of the property, which came to about $139,000, a difference of about $340,000 from the town’s assessment of the property. 

While acknowledging the disparity between the property’s assessed value and appraised value, the Hancock County Commissioners issued their own denial to the abatement request.

“It is improper to have an unequal assessment, but it is also improper, under the [Maine] Constitution, for us to grant an abatement that would result in an unequal assessment,” Clark said at the meeting, noting that the Knowlton’s property may have a high assessment, but it is not an unfair assessment when compared to neighboring and similar properties.  

“It does not appear that, despite the fact that your assessment is much higher than your appraisal, that you are being singled out when compared with others within your tax neighborhood and treated unfairly and I think that is the underlying issue,” Clark added, addressing Deb Knowlton. 

In reviewing Sullivan’s 2019 online real estate tax commitment book, The American found properties with a similarly assessed value, including a 1.2-acre property located along Route 1 that was assessed at $416,500. 

Another property, also on Route 1, was a 2.14-acre property assessed at $488,200.

In response, Knowlton said she understood where the commissioners were coming from, but that, “basically, your decision says that if everyone in the town is being assessed unfairly, then I have no right to request an abatement.” 

Sullivan Town Manager Stacy Tozier told The American that the town is taking steps to have an assessment completed, including sending the denial along with the commissioners’ comments to the state’s property tax department. 

“We did take it seriously,” Tozier said of the guidance from the commissioners. 

The 14-year gap between today and when the town was last assessed is significant, explained Bob Gingrass, an assessor with Parker Appraisal Co., who is responsible for the town’s assessments. 

“That has everything to do with it. [The year] 2006 was a very, very good market,” Gingrass said. 

Gingrass explained that assessments are performed solely for tax purposes while appraisals are done for several reasons. 

He said that properties with the same assessed value may be sold on the market for different prices for many reasons, but that should not mean the assessed values should change. 

Of the prospect of legal action, Knowlton said, “I don’t want to cause waves in the town. I really like it,” adding that she wondered if “others realize how high their assessments are.”

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