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Ossipee lakefront land owners seek joint suit over taxes

Sunday News Correspondent

May 26. 2012 8:54PM

OSSIPEE - A group of Ossipee lakefront homeowners is pursuing a class-action lawsuit against the town over what they say are disproportionately high property tax assessments.

The petitioners, Roland Cherwek and James Fitzpatrick Jr. Revocable Trust, and 60 other property owners, filed suit through their attorneys, Baldwin & Callen PLLC of Concord, against the town last August. But in order to file a class-action lawsuit, the case must meet a set of criteria.

In January, Carroll County Superior Court Judge Steven Houran disallowed the class-action certification and last month denied a motion for reconsideration. If the action had been approved, it would have been the first 'class-action' lawsuit over property taxes in the state, according to the plaintiffs.

Nevertheless, the plaintiffs and their attorney, Amy Manzelli, will pursue the case with a motion asking the superior court's permission to bring the issue to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.

The lawsuit focuses on the legal issue that the base land rate for the plaintiffs listed in the class-action is disproportionately high and as such, they are entitled to tax abatements, said Manzelli.

The town's select board has previously denied 62 requests for property tax abatements, including those of Cherwek and Fitzpatrick.

In an interview Friday, Fitzpatrick, who owns a waterfront home with 200 feet of frontage, was asked how much his taxes have gone up over the years.

Before he answered, he laughed.

'It's gone up … over the years from $1,600 (a year) to $11,000-plus, now,' he said.

When he first purchased the property, it included a small A-frame cottage. Over time, he and his wife built a house and a garage.

'Everybody is experiencing the same thing. The main problem with our assessments is the land figure; everybody in town is assessed the same way for buildings. Nobody has any problem with the assessment for buildings,' he said.

'But the land rate, we're maintaining, is over-assessed by $100,000 per waterfront lot,' he said.

The rate that was used by the town's assessor for waterfront in Ossipee is $400,000 value for the first one-sixth acre and $1,500 for each additional one-tenth of an acre.

Fitzpatrick said land sales over the last few years reflect the reality of lower sales prices for land, roughly at $300,000 per waterfront lot, if you subtract the value of the home.

'None of us have any problem with our houses being more valuable. The problem is the land is assessed way too high,' he said.

Basically, the assessor disregarded a 'bunch' of sales made over a two- to three-year period that were sold at a lower value because of death or divorce.

Fitzpatrick said those sales were unfairly factored into the assessment formula as 'forced sales' when they should not have been.

The town experienced its updated revaluation in 2010.

'After the 2010 assessments, we realized our values went up 3 percent, and the rest of the town went down 23 percent,' he said.

As for Judge Houran's order, Fitzpatrick said, while there has never been a class-action suit regarding property tax abatements, the plaintiff's have a solid case.

'I can't see where we don't meet every one of the guidelines,' he said. 'We would like to have the Supreme Court decide.'

In court documents, Ossipee's attorney, Richard Sager of Sager & Haskell PLLC, argued against allowing the class action.

'The seminal issue at hand is whether a particular parcel is assessed disproportionately to other properties in town. Given that each parcel of real estate is unique in its physical characteristics and location, it is impossible for the court to establish a ruling that would adequately result in fair assessment to all 60-plus properties of which the plaintiffs seek to have the various owners certified as class,' stated Sager.

'Rather, each parcel has to be examined individually to determine whether or not it is assessed proportionately.'

On Friday, Fitzpatrick said a meeting regarding the assessment issue is planned for Tuesday with town officials and attorneys in the case.

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