Justice overturns tax abatements granted on Amish barns in Aroostook County

Posted Jan. 16, 2017, at 3:45 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 16, 2017, at 6:22 p.m.

A Superior Court justice has overturned a decision by Aroostook County commissioners that had granted tax abatements to Amish families in Easton who said their barns were overassessed in a 2015 property tax revaluation.

After Easton finished its first property tax revaluation in 23 years — increasing everyone’s taxes in the town as a result — six Amish families with new barns appealed to the Aroostook County commissioners last summer.

The families argued that their recently built barns were overvalued by the town, with each “assessed like a castle,” despite being relatively low-cost structures built by Amish community members and without electricity or plumbing.

The assessed value of the barns ranged from $93,391 to $129,501, with four of the barns valued at more than $100,000.

Last July, commissioners agreed with the families and granted them abatements that reduced the town’s assessments on the barns by about 25 percent. With a tax rate of $17.40 per $1,000 of valuation in Easton, the abatements saved each family between $400 and $600 in property taxes.

In August, Easton filed an appeal with the Aroostook County Superior Court, which on Jan. 3 ruled in the town’s favor and overturned the county commissioners’ decision.

In his ruling, Superior Court Justice Harold Stewart II wrote that it was “an error” for the panel to “exercise its own judgement of an abatement amount with no supporting evidence in the record.”

The Amish families “produced evidence of the unique and unusual circumstances employed to erect these buildings with minimal cost, but that by itself is not evidence of just value or fair market value,” Stewart wrote.

The Amish families “successfully proved that the assessment was likely high; they did not prove what their assessments should be,” Stewart wrote, noting that they did not offer specifics of “just value.”

Members of the Amish families, who represented themselves in the matter, could not be reached for comment, but Aroostook County Administrator Doug Beaulieu said the decision would not be appealed.

“We’re not going to appeal it. The legal rationale is sound,” Beaulieu said Friday.

He also pointed out, however, that the justice indicated three or four times in his ruling that the Amish barns likely were assessed too high.

The families just didn’t meet their burden of proof and couldn’t articulate well enough what the assessed values should be, Beaulieu said.

The county administrator still felt that the town of Easton should work with the families to reduce their tax burden on the barns.

“If someone in the position of authority like a judge says that they’re probably overassessed, you’d like to think that the town would try to ameliorate that because they can do it,” Beaulieu said. “Government officials, not only do they have a legal obligation, but they have a moral and ethical one to be fair to their citizens.”

Easton Town Manager Jim Gardner said the decision is a win for the town’s effort to tax all businesses and residents at a fair value, and that he will be reaching out to the Amish families to outline the next steps for collecting the taxes.

“The county commissioners’ decision was driving a wedge in our community,” Gardner said, referring to some residents being concerned that the Amish were getting an unfair tax break in the aftermath of a revaluation that was financially painful for many.

Before the state-mandated revaluation, many properties were assessed at less than 50 percent of their current market value — meaning that many people saw their property taxes double after the revaluation, including Gardner’s own home, he said.

“We’re going to move forward,” Gardner said. “I see this as nothing different than what happened to everyone else in town.”

Gardner added that he’s optimistic about residents and the town government retaining strong relations with the Easton Amish community. The town’s Amish businesses include eight dairy farms supplying Organic Valley, a small lumber mill, a cabin and shed maker, a general store and four furniture makers.

“Our Amish community is now 14 percent of our population,” Gardner said, noting that the first Amish family, the Yoders, settled in Easton 10 years ago. “Their children are staying here.”

Aroostook Republican & News writer Joshua Archer contributed to this report.

 

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