Summer resident’s suit changes tax rules

Posted Nov. 08, 2010, at 9:19 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:06 p.m.

SWAN’S ISLAND, Maine — A judge in Hancock County has ordered an offshore island town to revise the way it determines property taxes after a seasonal resident sued the town over his 2009 tax bill.

In his Oct. 19 decision, Justice Kevin Cuddy wrote that Swan’s Island has no records that list the exact size of any of the houses it has assessed for taxes and could not demonstrate how it specifically calculated each property’s tax bill.

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Paul B. FitzGerald filed the suit against the town after appealing his 2009 assessment of $350,000 to the Hancock County commissioners. According to documents filed in Hancock County Superior Court, FitzGerald argued that his 2009 property taxes should have been $180,000, which is similar to the assessed values of other, similar properties on the island.

In March, the county commissioners granted a partial abatement after determining that an accessory building on the property was still under construction and so had been overvalued by the town. But commissioners declined to grant an abatement on the remainder of FitzGerald’s property after they concluded that Swan’s Island had no methodology by which they could re-examine FitzGerald’s assessment.

FitzGerald appealed the commissioners’ decision to Hancock County Superior Court.

“Rather than using a formula or discrete methodology, the town’s approach to assessment of houses appears to the court to have been based on entirely subjective, almost unquantifiable factors,” Cuddy wrote in his decision.

According to court documents filed by the town’s attorney, Valerie Chiasson of Ellsworth, FitzGerald had put the home up for sale for nearly $800,000, but by the time county commissioners held the abatement hearing, FitzGerald had reduced the sale price to $595,000.

Two of the island’s three selectmen told Hancock County commissioners last winter that they have taken related professional training courses and the third testified that he has 35 years of assessing experience, according to the town attorney.

FitzGerald’s attorney, Daniel Pileggi of Ellsworth, said Monday that his client has some concerns about the lack of specificity in the judge’s order. The court decision does not establish a deadline by which Swan’s Island selectmen must revisit the issue, he said, nor does it indicate what sort of process selectmen must go through in reassessing FitzGerald’s property.

Pileggi said FitzGerald is not planning to appeal the judge’s order, however.

“That’s not within our plans right now,” Pileggi said. “We need to give the town some time to comply with the order.”

According to an online rental listing for the property at cyberrentals.com, the four-story, four-bedroom, 3,300-square-foot home has “amazing views” of the ocean. The listing indicates the house has four bathrooms and can sleep up to 10 people.

FitzGerald, contacted Monday by e-mail, declined to indicate what he charges for renting out the property.

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