A jury has ruled in favor of the Town of Shandaken in a suit brought by a group of Shandaken landowners who claim their properties were reassessed unfairly seven years ago by then-assessor Rosalie Boland. The town had singled out privately owned properties of 20 acres or more for reassessment, leaving smaller properties and large state-owned parcels at longstanding lower rates of assessment.
The opposing attorneys, naturally, saw the verdict differently.
The town was represented in the trial by Kyle W. Barnett, of the law firm of Van DeWater & Van DeWater, LLP, in Poughkeepsie. Barnett stated, “What made this case so challenging was that it was the first of its kind involving a complex area of the law and also because it was tried before a jury, so in many ways we were forging new ground. In the end, though, the jury got it right.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Brian W. Matula from the Albany law firm of Cooper Erving and Savage, LLP, commented, “I don’t believe that there was any evidence to support the jury’s determination. Knowing the evidence, and hearing the testimony of Rosalie Boland, I was unable to discern any basis for Ms. Boland’s differing treatment of land owners. In fact, she has continued to maintain that there was no difference in treatment.”
Barnett, the town’s lawyer, stated that the suit was in reference to vacant land that was reassessed to a flat $600 per acre in 2005. He said, “Many small property owners were not reassessed in 2005 because purportedly their vacant properties were already at higher than $600. The claim was that New York State, which owns a huge amount of the town — 75 percent — has over 100 parcels, and none were reassessed at all. Some were already above $600, some were below, and none of them were touched in 2005. Other public property owned by New York City was reassessed, but not land owned by the state.” However, Barnett said the state properties were reassessed to $600 in 2006, with areas already assessed above that level remaining higher.
Matula explained that the jury was required to consider several questions: Were the property owners to whom the plaintiffs compared themselves (i.e., smaller landowners and New York State) similarly situated? Were the plaintiffs treated differently from the other groups? And was there a rational justification in treating them differently?
The jury ruled in the affirmative for the first two questions, agreeing that the plaintiffs were treated differently to comparable groups. But they concluded, in answer to the third questions, that there was a rational reason for the different treatment.
In her testimony, “Boland merely maintained that the plaintiffs’ assessments were too low,” reported Matula. “She testified that she applied a minimum per-acre assessment for all the plaintiffs, but didn’t apply any minimum per-acre assessment to the smaller parcels or to the State-owned parcels. Yet, she still didn’t see any difference.”
Barnett says the rationale behind the reassessment was “to bring equity to the town’s assessments — not whether this was the best way to bring equity, but whether there was a rational reason.”
200 percent higher?
“I was frankly astonished when the jury’s answer to the third question was read,” said Brian Powers of Chichester, former publisher of the now defunct Phoenicia Times, and one of the plaintiffs. He felt the jurors had been confused by the complexity of the information presented, not grasping that the reassessments represented 2005 full market value, while the much of the town remained at 1978 market levels.
“Effectively we’re being taxed at a rate of at least 200 percent higher than most other properties in town,” said Powers. “The jury wasn’t instructed about applicable state laws that might apply to the case.”
Barnett, however, contends that many properties in the town were already at higher levels, adding, “Of the smaller private properties, some had not been reassessed since 1978. There could be a number of reasons, but that was not an issue for this trial.”
After the trial, jurors stated in conversation that they had given no credence to the numbers advanced by Boland and current town assessor Heidi Clark pertaining to state averages for assessment. “The jury disregarded the figures, saying they knew the numbers were not accurate,” reported Matula. “So it’s unclear what facts the jurors relied on to come to their conclusion.”
The town’s lawyers are expected to make a motion to recover attorney’s fees from the plaintiffs, according to Matula. “That’s not the typical practice in state court,” he explained, “but because the action is brought under a federal statute, the Town’s attorneys will be arguing they are entitled to fees as the prevailing party in the litigation. Now the plaintiffs must appeal the jury’s decision or, at a minimum, fight the motion for fees.”
Powers said the 20 or so families represented will have to consider whether to make an appeal, given the expense and relative chance of success.
Shandaken supervisor Rob Stanley remarked, “I’m happy to learn that we were defended successfully in this case — it was a long time coming. The assessments will stand, and the people will no longer have to come every grievance day to complain about their taxes.” He estimated the town’s legal fees in the case at over $100,000.