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Guntlow v. Board of Abatement

Supreme Court of Vermont

November 7, 2014

Pauline Guntlow and Richard Winterkorn
Board of Abatement, Town of Pownal

On Appeal from Superior Court, Bennington Unit, Civil Division John P. Wesley, J.

Paul S. Gillies of Tarrant, Gillies, Merriman & Richardson, Montpelier, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Peter V. Holden, Bennington, for Defendant-Appellee.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund and Robinson, JJ., and Maley and Griffin, Supr. JJ.,


¶ 1 Two taxpayers appeal a decision from the trial court affirming the decision of the board of abatement of the Town of Pownal denying their request for tax abatement. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

¶ 2. Taxpayers sought abatement of the property taxes on several contiguous properties for the years 2005 through 2011. Taxpayers pressed their claims before the town abatement board, appearing three times before that body. In January 2012, the board held a hearing and denied taxpayers’ request, but later determined that it had lacked a quorum. In a second hearing, in March 2012, the board again voted to deny taxpayers’ request. Taxpayers appealed that denial to the Superior Court, Civil Division. The trial court noted that the board’s meeting minutes, which simply stated that the board had denied taxpayers’ request, did not explain the reasons for the board’s denial enough to enable the court to decide the case, and did not satisfy the statutory requirement that the abatement board “state in detail in writing the reasons for its decision.” 24 V.S.A. § 1535(c). The court remanded the matter to the abatement board, directing that it either detail in writing the reasons for its decision or hold a new, curative hearing.

¶ 3. In August 2013, the tax abatement board held its third hearing, the one at issue here. Taxpayers’ request for tax abatement was based on 24 V.S.A. § 1535(a)(4), which provides that the board “may abate in whole or part taxes, interest, or collection fees” in cases in which there was a “manifest error or a mistake of the listers.” Taxpayers made four arguments.

¶ 4. First, taxpayers argued that the Town’s delinquent-tax collector erred in assessing interest and fees on the entirety of an overdue tax bill after refusing to accept a partial payment that taxpayers had proffered in 2011. Taxpayer Guntlow explained that she sought to pay taxpayers’ overdue 2010 property tax for her homestead, one of several properties they owned. The delinquent-tax collector said that taxpayers could not specify payment for an individual property because their property had just been reclassified from a single contiguous property to five individual properties, and that any payment made would be applied to all the properties. Although they initially opted not to pay the bill on that basis, taxpayers subsequently paid the overdue bill, directing on the check that the payments be applied to the homestead property—which they were particularly anxious to protect from tax sale.

¶ 5. Taxpayers further explained that, on advice of counsel, they took legal steps to legally change the property classification for the homestead property, and subsequently sought to pay the 2011 property-tax bill for that specific property. Again, the tax collector said that any money paid by taxpayers would be applied to all of the properties. Only after the intervention of counsel did the tax collector accept a partial payment allocated to the homestead property. Nonetheless, taxpayers were assessed interest and penalties on overdue taxes, including the amount of the payment they had offered to make when due. Taxpayers sought abatement in the amount of $866.50, the interest and penalties they said they were assessed on account of the tax collector’s refusal to accept the partial payment allocated to a specific property.

¶ 6. Second, taxpayers argued that the listers had erroneously and without notice to taxpayers reclassified their property for several years, resulting in improperly inflated tax bills. Taxpayer Guntlow explained that following her discussion with the tax collector in which she first learned about the distinction between properties classified as individual and properties classified as contiguous, she investigated the matter further. She learned that their various properties had been classified as contiguous in 2004, but were switched to individual sometime in 2005—without, taxpayers said, any explanation or notice—and remained individually classified until late August 2011, when they were reclassified back to contiguous.

¶ 7. Taxpayers argued to the board that this reclassification without explanation or notice, which significantly raised the taxes and fees assessed, was arbitrary and violated state law. Taxpayers asserted that because the property was contiguous and under common ownership, it should have been classified as contiguous all along, and that the individual reclassification over multiple years violated 32 V.S.A. § 4152(a)(3), which mandates that every town’s “grand list” contain a “brief description of each parcel of taxable real estate in the town” and defines “parcel” as “all contiguous land in the same ownership, together with all improvements thereon.”

¶ 8. Third, the taxpayers argued that one sewer-bond payment is applied to each parcel. Because their contiguous property had been wrongly classified as multiple parcels, taxpayers were charged for multiple sewer bonds over multiple years, for a total overcharge of $1, 342.

¶ 9. Fourth, taxpayer Guntlow explained that because the properties were misclassified as individual, a.66-acre leach field was assessed at $10, 400 from 2005 to 2010, rather than the $700 value assigned to the leach field once the properties were reclassified as contiguous, resulting in an overpayment of $1, 197.

¶ 10. Fifth, taxpayer Guntlow explained that a house site up to two acres around a house is subject to an exemption in the taxation calculus that was unavailable to taxpayers during the years when their property was misclassified.

¶ 11. Finally, taxpayers presented statistical evidence that they argued showed that the town listers had failed to equalize their property assessments with others in their town, and that this failure amounted to a manifest error or mistake of the listers. This was a major focus of taxpayers’ detailed presentation at the abatement hearing. In it, taxpayers argued that their property was not appraised at a uniform rate, and thus violated the requirement of proportional contribution. Taxpayers did not argue that the property was not appraised at fair-market value; instead, they argued that there was a failure to equalize such that the ratio of listed value to market value of their property was disproportionate to the ratio of listed value to fair-market value ...

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