Court finds for town in Graham tax appeal
A long-awaited decision by the Massachusetts Court of Appeals provided another welcome victory for the West Tisbury board of assessors in its marathon legal battle with William Graham, over the valuation of his Mohu property in Lambert's Cove.
On Monday, the three-member Appeals Court, in a unanimous decision, upheld a June 2006 decision by the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board (ATB) that found that Mr. Graham's property tax assessments for 2003 and 2004 were 99 percent accurate.
In affirming the Appellate Tax Board's rejection of Mr. Graham's appeal from the town assessors' valuation of his property, the court wrote, "On our view of the record, we are satisfied that the board's [Appellate Tax Board's] findings were based on substantial evidence and that its reasons for rejecting much of Graham's proof were well founded."
In its decision, the court made clear that it found that the ATB's decision, which "credited the assessors' explanations regarding the mass appraisal system it employed and the application of that system to the Graham properties and surrounding properties and neighborhoods" was proper and that its reliance on the expert testimony of Kenneth Croft, a witness in support of the town assessors' position, was also reasonable. The court did not similarly credit the testimony of an expert witness in support of Mr. Graham.
"On appeal," the court wrote, "much of Graham's argument consists of pressing portions of the record favorable to his cause, but he fails to demonstrate that substantial evidence was lacking to support the board's conclusions in favor of the assessors."
In a statement released after their Tuesday evening meeting, the West Tisbury assessors, wrote, "We are pleased as a board that the Appeals Court has found on behalf of the town of West Tisbury and the board of assessors. We hope that this will take us on the path to resolving the related matters with Mr. Graham. The board would especially like to thank attorney Ellen Hutchinson for her hard work."
For his part, Mr. Graham said yesterday in a telephone conversation, "I'm obviously disappointed in the court's ruling. I brought the case because I thought there were inconsistencies in the way properties were assessed. And, I still do. But, I will accept the court's decision, and I am going to move on, including withdrawing the other appeals."
Mr. Graham had also appealed to the ATB the assessments on his property and consequently the tax bills for 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. Those cases were held in abeyance pending the ruling from the Court of Appeals.
Mr. Graham had claimed that the town's assessments were unfair. He owns seven properties totaling 235 acres off Lambert's Cove Road. The town assessed his holdings at $51,116,700. By Mr. Graham's calculations, his properties were worth only $20,240,000.
The ATB's trial of Mr. Graham's appeal from the town's valuation, then the longest running residential case ever decided by the board, required 36 days for testimony and argument and generated reams of paper and more than 450 exhibits.
The ATB verdict made no change in five of the assessments and a reduction in two others of $528,500. That reduction lowered Mr. Graham's overall assessments to $50,588,200 - a one percent change.
Unhappy with the ATB decision, Mr. Graham, a Los Angeles attorney, appealed. As the appellant, Mr. Graham was required to show that the ATB ruling was based on errors of law or that the ATB findings were not supported by substantial evidence.
"We are obviously very pleased with Appeals Court's decision," said Ellen Hutchinson, attorney for the board of assessors, in a telephone call on Tuesday. "I think the decision is vindication for the board of assessors and for former principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes."
As the ATB trial and its four months of testimony approached, Mr. Graham and his supporters questioned the professionalism, honesty, and competence of members of the board of assessors and Ms. Resendes.
"If you recall, there were those calling for her resignation," said Ms. Hutchinson. "The ATB decision, which was affirmed by the appeals court, proved that Jo-Ann and the board did their jobs correctly, appropriately, and with the upmost integrity."
Although she has since left West Tisbury to work for the Edgartown assessors, Ms. Resendes has followed the case closely. On Tuesday, she said she never doubted the outcome of the case, but was surprised that a decision in the appeal took so long.
"I think that the town of West Tisbury board of assessors and I have been completely vindicated by this decision," said Ms. Resendes. "We believed in our position all along, and I would hope that this reaffirms the confidence the taxpayers have in the work of town officials."
Asked if any of her critics had called to apologize, Ms. Resendes said, "I haven't heard from anyone."
Mr. Graham was represented by the Boston law firm of Foley Hoag. On Tuesday, John Stevens Jr., a partner in Foley Hoag, said his client had not authorized him to comment on the case.
Mr. Graham inherited his property, known as Mohu, following the death in 2001 of his mother, the former Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
In bringing his case to the ATB, Mr. Graham said he wanted to expose flaws in the mass appraisal system as it has been implemented in West Tisbury.
By Mr. Graham's accounting, his overpayments for 2003 and 2004 property taxes totaled $319,164. The ATB ruled that Mr. Graham was due a refund of $2,616 for 2003 and $2,813 for 2004.
According to the ATB findings, Mr. Graham and his attorneys failed to make a credible case.
In one instance the board wrote, "In the present appeals, the appellants did provide some disjointed but sparse comparable assessment data. They did not, however, provide a coherent and detailed comparable sales analysis. In most instances, they failed to make any adjustments for their purportedly comparable assessment properties' obvious differences with the juxtaposed Graham properties and often failed to properly compare Graham property assessments, for land and improvement values, to comparable property assessments, for land and improvement values. Consequently, the Board found and ruled that the appellants' comparable assessment methodology was spurious and any values derived from it were hollow and unfounded."