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Rasmussen v. Town of Fair Haven

Supreme Court of Vermont

January 8, 2016

Lauritz Rasmussen
v.
Town of Fair Haven

On Appeal from Property Valuation and Review Division Michael Bernhardt, Hearing Officer

Lauritz Rasmussen, Pro Se, Fair Haven, Plaintiff-Appellant.

William J. Bloomer of Bloomer & Bloomer, P.C., Rutland, for Defendant-Appellee.

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

EATON, J.

¶ 1. Taxpayer appeals pro se from the Town of Fair Haven's assessment of his property for the 2014 grand list. We affirm.

¶ 2. Taxpayer owns real property in the Town of Fair Haven. The property consists of three separately deeded contiguous parcels. There is a main house on one parcel and a rental house on each of the two additional parcels. The town considers the property as one 7.58 acre parcel. See 32 V.S.A. § 4152(a)(3) (defining "parcel" as "all contiguous land in the same ownership, together with all improvements thereon"). The town has assigned a grade of 1 to a 2 acre house site, and a grade of .60 to 5.58 acres of excess land.

¶ 3. In 2014, the town listers assessed the value of the parcel at $585, 800. Taxpayer appealed to the Board of Civil Authority (BCA). Taxpayer would not allow the BCA members to inspect the main house, however, and the BCA therefore considered the appeal withdrawn. See id. § 4404(c) (stating that if appellant refuses to allow inspection of his property, appeal is deemed withdrawn). Taxpayer appealed this decision to the Director of the Property Valuation and Review Division, who assigned the case to a Property Tax Hearing Officer.

¶ 4. At the hearing, taxpayer argued that that the BCA erred in considering his appeal withdrawn. He stated that he had appealed only a portion of the listers' valuation to the BCA- the value of the improvements concerning two rental properties and not the main house on a separate lot-and therefore he was not obligated to allow the BCA to inspect the main house. The town responded that because the properties were contiguous and in common ownership, by statute, all of the property was treated as one parcel for purposes of assessment and the grand list. The town indicated that this approach allowed all of the land to be included in the homestead and to be assessed at the resident rate. See "Homestead, " Code of Vt. Rules 10 060 038, http://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/codeofvtrules/ (explaining that term "parcel" is defined by statute as "all contiguous land in the same ownership, together with all improvements thereon, " and there is no acreage limitation on a homestead; accordingly, even if there are buildings or improvements on land contiguous to the homestead that are not homestead property, the land is part of the homestead and will be taxed at the homestead tax rate).

¶ 5. In a written order, the hearing officer concluded that the BCA had correctly dismissed taxpayer's appeal, and that there was no avenue for further appeal to the hearing officer. As he explained, the law requires that:

Each property, the appraisal of which is being appealed, shall be inspected by a committee of not less than three members of the board [of civil authority] who shall report to the board within 30 days from the hearing on the appeal and before the final decision pertaining to the property is given. If, after notice, the appellant refuses to allow an inspection of the property as required under this subsection, including the interior and exterior of any structure on the property, the appeal shall be deemed withdrawn.

32 V.S.A. § 4404(c).

¶ 6. The hearing officer reasoned that while the statute did not set forth precisely what an inspection entailed, the statute's purpose and plain meaning implied that an inspection must involve a careful examination of the "property, " which necessarily must include an inspection of any dwelling. Taxpayer denied access to the property's main house, asserting that his appeal was limited to improvements on other parts of his property. The hearing officer found that the references in the statute and case law clearly referred to "property" and thus, in order for the BCA to meet its statutory requirement, it correctly required inspection of the main house to determine the property's overall fair market value. The hearing officer thus held that the BCA correctly dismissed taxpayer's appeal. The Director approved the hearing officer's order in February 2015, and this appeal followed.

ΒΆ 7. On appeal, taxpayer reiterates his position that his contiguous lots should be assessed separately and that he is entitled to grieve a portion of his property assessment and refuse inspection of the remaining portion. He argues that there is a difference between the term "parcel" and "property, " and that the only "property" involved here was two lots that were subject to a separate deed from the main house. Taxpayer maintains that he has the right to decline an unreasonable search and that he could not waive a third party's right to decline an unreasonable search. Taxpayer also contends that, without notice or warning to him, the hearing focused on a "technical issue"-whether the BCA properly deemed his appeal withdrawn- rather than on evidence concerning the proper assessment of his property. Finally, ...


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