‘Vacant Unbuildable’ Matter$
To the Editor,
A few years ago I tore down a ramshackle cottage on an undersized lot in Pootatuck Park, then formally gave up the right to rebuild it and asked the assessor’s office to reevaluate the lot for taxes. It did, but incorrectly classified the land as “Vacant,” as if it were buildable, instead of “Vacant Unbuildable.” If I hadn’t caught the error, I would have had to pay thousands more in property taxes over the coming the years.
This experience made me question whether there are other unbuildable undersize lots in the old camp developments along Lake Zoar that are similarly misclassified and consequently overvalued and overtaxed. It turns out most are classified correctly, but many are not.
Consider the taxes on three empty lots in Pootatuck Park in a one-acre zone — 71 Maplewood Trail is .55 acres and is correctly classified as “Vacant Unbuildable.” The taxes are $100.14. Abutting it is 136 Edgelake Drive, a 0.18 acre lot incorrectly classified as “Vacant.” The taxes are $1,232.86, 12 times more for a lot one-third the size. Nearby is 114 Edgelake Drive, a 0.52 acre lot that is incorrectly classified as “Vacant.” The taxes are $1,668.06, 16 times the tax for the nearly identical unbuildable lot at 71 Maplewood Trail, 200 feet away.
Or consider a 0.28 acre lot on Riverside Road in a two-acre zone. The lot is correctly classified as “Vacant Unbuildable,” and the taxes are $50.94. But a 0.25 acre lot nearby on Basswood Trail in the same two-acre zone is misclassified as “Vacant” and the taxes are $1,530.14, 30 times the tax for the nearly identical unbuildable lot on Riverside Road, 175 feet away.
The assessor’s office states that its mission is to serve the public in an “equitable manner.” Indeed, state law requires that property be appraised uniformly and that assessed values be equalized. So, what accounts for these significant disparities that the law was intended to prevent? How can two nearby and nearly identical lots be classified so differently such that the owner of one pays 30 times more tax than the owner of the other?
I suspect it’s because the assessor’s office never reclassified some small lots along the lake to reflect their new “Vacant Unbuildable” status after they were upzoned by the town in 2000. Even before upzoning, some of these undersize lots were misclassified as “Vacant.” These errors have apparently not been caught by revaluations. The town has consequently collected tens of thousands of dollars in extra taxes from the owners of undersize lots that it has misclassified. Is that equitable?
If you own an unbuildable, undersize lot in one of the old camp developments, you can see how the town classifies it on the tax assessor’s page on the town website. Compare the classification to that of nearby lots. If something doesn’t look right, the Tax Assessor’s telephone number is 270-4240. If your property is misclassified, are you due a refund of the taxes you overpaid?
Sandy Hook, CT