by Ed Naile

The Assessing Standards Board yesterday defended the practice of factoring a property’s view into its assessment but disputed the existence of a so-called view tax.

The board, which is attached to the Department of Revenue Administration, is responsible for recommending guidelines relating to property taxes and assessments. About 25 citizens, largely from the Upper Valley and the North Country, drove down to Concord for yesterday’s meeting.

“There appears to be widespread misunderstanding of how various influences, including view, apply to the assessment of the value of land,” the board wrote. “The widespread misunderstanding could lead to the incorrect perception that there is a separate ‘view tax.’ …New Hampshire law does not allow for a separate view tax.”

The statement, which was approved by the board in a 10-to-1 vote after more than two hours of discussion, cites the laws that require property to be assessed at “fair market value.”

“Making arbitrary adjustments to fair market value creates unlawful and disproportional assessments,” the board said. It warned that failure to use fair market value will be detected by the state and will result in revaluations, which cost taxpayers money.

Department of Revenue Commissioner Philip Blatsos said the department needed to come up with a position to communicate with local elected officials. “There’s more misinformation than information out there,” he said.

Board Chairwoman and state Rep. Betsey Patten said many residents believe a “view tax” means an additional sum added to property value, beyond assessed market value. In fact, she said, view is just one factor used to determine that value. “Our goal is to put out a clear statement that there’s not a separate view tax, and fair market value drives assessments,” she said.

Board member Thomas Thomson, who owns Thomson Family Tree Farm in Orford and has actively fought the view factor, registered the single vote against the statement, arguing that view cannot be defined and should not be used in assessments. “My concern is the board wasn’t listening to the 700-plus people who came to the public forums to ask pointed questions,” he said. “View has no definition; it’s all about something subjective. Ten people could asses the same views and get 10 answers. Taxpayers deserve better.”

“You can measure bathrooms, acreage, road frontage,” Thomson said. “You can’t measure view.”

The use of views has caused controversy recently through two high-profile cases. The state Supreme Court last month ruled against a Plainfield taxpayer who said his property was assessed at a rate higher than the rest of the town because of his view. Last year, there was a public outcry in Orford when selectmen decided not to accept reassessment figures that delineated a view factor, although they later changed their minds. The revaluations have been reviewed by the state and the case is pending before the Board of Tax and Land Appeals.

Locally, several residents of Hopkinton protested after seeing a line for view appear on their property cards after a recent revaluation. Gould Hill Orchard owner Erick Leadbeater said the value added for view is driving him to sell his farm for development.

The Assessing Standards Board in November hosted public forums in Durham, Manchester, Lancaster and Whitefield, at which the overwhelming majority of residents came to voice concerns about assessments that included views. Yesterday’s meeting at the Department of Revenue Administration aimed to address the feedback, although Patten said the board still needed to pool minutes from the forums to properly evaluate them.

Several of yesterday’s attendees, at least one of whom drove down from the Canadian border, wore tea bags pinned to their shirts reading “0 view tax” – a reference to the Boston Tea Party.

State Rep. Derek Owen of Hopkinton said he came because constituents were complaining about the tax on views. But Owen argued that the real problem was the system. “Property tax is a lousy way to create income for the state. We need a fair tax system,” perhaps an income or sales tax, he said.

Proponents of the view factor say view helps determine market value and must be considered. Avitar President Gary Roberge, whose assessing software was used to conduct many of the disputed revaluations, said unless the law is changed, Avitar will continue measuring view.

“Right now, we live and die on market value, which contains a component of view that’s no different from bedrooms, bathrooms, waterfront,” he said. Roberge said the real problem is a growing housing market that increases home values. “People who owned houses for a long time now see taxes beyond their reach,” he said.

Blatsos said there is an objective test for assessments – the equalization process. Every year, the state reviews data to ensure that actual sales for each town and city match assessments. In the current system, where view is a factor, Blatsos said reviews have found most towns’ assessments to be fair – those that are not must conduct revaluations.

“If you look at the assessed value versus sales, its pretty good now,” Blatsos said. “If you take one factor out, it won’t line up. If it becomes disproportionate, people won’t pay their fair share.”

But detractors say view is subjective. Robert Elwell of Lancaster, who brought bumper stickers reading “Ax the view tax,” said he thought the statement represented little change on the part of the board.

“The view tax is a symptom of government out of control, taxation out of control,” he said. “There’s no definition of what constitutes a view, no formula for calculation.”

Duffy Daugherty of East Colebrook said the board did not address the issue, which he sees as being how fair market value is determined.

“I’ve never heard of anything as ridiculous as a factor for view,” he said. “Fair market value is decided by the buyer and seller and shouldn’t be adjusted by any means but the buyer and seller. Telling you what you can sell your property for is socialism.”