West Tisbury wins Guiney tax appeal
The Massachusetts Appellate Tax board ruled Monday in favor of the West Tisbury assessors and against Dr. Timothy and Ellen Guiney, in an appeal of the town's multi-million dollar real estate valuation of the couple's north shore property, near Paul's Point.
The Guineys appeared before the state Appellate Tax Board last December to appeal the fiscal year 2005 value of their eight-acre property, including a home and cottage, at $10 million. The couple, who bought a home in Chilmark after placing their West Tisbury residence on the market, argued that the sale of their property last summer to neighbor Paul Levy for $7.5 million was proof that the town's valuation was in error.
Ellen Hutchinson, attorney for the West Tisbury assessors, argued that the sale was not relevant to the value assigned by the assessors on the valuation date of Jan. 1, 2004.
The town victory follows another tax board decision handed down on June 27, 2006, in favor of the assessors in a bruising, high-profile battle with West Tisbury resident William W. Graham.
Mr. Graham had appealed his 2003 and 2004 assessments to the tax board, claiming that the town's assessments and the methodology used to arrive at the numbers were unfair, even improper. Mr. Graham's seven properties, totaling 235 acres off Lambert's Cove Road, were assessed at $51,116,700. By Mr. Graham's calculations, his properties were worth only $20,240,000. The trial took up 36 days, the longest-running residential case in the history of the ATB.
Michael Colaneri, chairman of the board of assessors, which includes Cynthia Mitchell and Stanton Richards, was spare in his comments on Monday's ruling. Asked for a statement, he said, "We are pleased with the outcome."
West Tisbury's principal assessor, Jo-Ann Resendes, who was the subject of much criticism, some of which questioned her integrity and competence, from Mr. Graham and his supporters, was equally taciturn.
"The town is pleased with the decision," she said Tuesday.
Reached at his home in Boston yesterday, Dr. Guiney, a prominent Mass General Hospital cardiologist who also serves on the Martha's Vineyard Hospital board, responded to The Times request for comment in an e-mail.
Dr. Guiney said he and his wife have no plans to appeal. They said the decision in favor of the West Tisbury assessors is "disappointing and surprising, particularly in view of the extensive case law cited in our appeal and specifically cases decided by the Supreme Judicial Court, to the effect that the sale price, if certain reasonable criteria are met, should be determinative of the worth of a property."
Explaining the process, Ms. Hutchinson said that the burden of proof is always on the taxpayer to establish that a property is overvalued and that an abatement is due. She said that the Guineys relied solely on the June 2006 sale of their 7.94-acre properties to argue that the January 1, 2004, $10,060,500 assessment was incorrect.
Ms. Hutchinson said the assessors made two settlement offers to the Guineys that recognized that the property had been on the market for a number of years and had not been sold. "But we also felt that the fact that it sold to an abutter had to be taken into account," she said. "Because sales to abutters are not necessarily arms-length transactions, but the Guineys turned it down."
In their final settlement offer, the assessors were willing to reduce the assessed value to $8.5 million. Ms. Hutchinson said the Guineys essentially wanted to rely on the sale price of $7.5 million. "We thought that the $8.5 was very fair," she said.
The appellate tax board decision upheld the assessed value of $10,060,500, which reflected an earlier abatement.
As is customary, the tax board decision in the Guiney case was delivered in a one-sentence finding.
Ms. Hutchinson said the assessors try to work with the taxpayer but can only do so much, and in this case, she said the taxpayers were not being reasonable. "The position of the Guineys left us with no choice but to go in and defend the value, and that is what we did," she said.
Ms. Huchinson said West Tisbury taxpayers may take from the decision that the assessors are fair, and that if there is an issue "they will make every effort to assist the taxpayer, keeping in mind that they have an obligation not only to that specific taxpayer but to all of the taxpayers in the town."
The town is still waiting for the tax board to issue a complete, written report in Mr. Graham's case. It is possible that Mr. Graham will appeal the tax board ruling to Massachusetts Court of Appeals. In a letter to the West Tisbury selectmen and in meetings with them, Mr. Graham said that if the ruling went against him, he planned to appeal and was confident that he would prevail at the higher court.
The Guineys have 10 days from the date of the decision to file a request for a report that would explain the basis for the tax board's decision.
In their e-mail to The Times, the Guineys said they would ask for a written report from the tax board. "This may take some time, as Mr. Graham has found out, since he has had to sue them in order to pry loose some sort of rationale for their decision in his case," they wrote.
Over the course of the Graham case, Mr. Graham and his representatives assailed Ms. Resendes's professionalism and character and accused her of fabricating records. In an editorial, the Vineyard Gazette called upon Ms. Resendes to resign in order to "clear the air and restore the credibility of responsible government."
On Tuesday, Ms. Hutchinson had high praise for Ms. Resendes. "She is dedicated, honest and does a terrific job," said Ms. Hutchinson. "And there is no doubt in my mind that she is a person of integrity."
The Guineys, who now live in Seven Gates in Chilmark, had no praise for West Tisbury or its officials. They expressed confidence that an appeal, had they decided to follow that route, would have been successful on the merits. They expressed no sorrow at leaving West Tisbury behind.
"We have also been asked if we plan to appeal," they wrote. "We do not, since we are unwilling to spend any more time or money on this situation. Were we to do so however, we could be reasonably certain that the Supreme Judicial Court would not be likely to reverse their oft stated and commonsensical position that the sales price determined by market forces is determinative. The new owner, who is right behind us in line at the ATB, will make his case along similar lines, and we will be there to support him.
"We are certainly not sorry to leave behind West Tisbury, its taxes, its boards, its tangled and personalized politics and its elected officials. To paraphrase the baptism ritual, we renounce it and all its pomps and works."