A six-year tax battle between Shandaken and its largest landowners may have ended on July 20 when a jury ruled in favor of the town. However, despite their latest defeat, the landowners have not thrown in the towel just yet.
The group of landowners is weighing whether to appeal a recent Ulster County Supreme Court decision that found that Shandaken could raise assessments of properties on more than 20 acres of undeveloped land, according to plaintiff Brian Powers.
“We are still assessing what the right course of action will be,” said Powers, who said he was the last landowner to join the suit.
The tax disagreement between the town and the 18 landowners reached a breaking point on Friday, July 20, after the Ulster County Supreme Court in Kingston concluded that Shandaken had a “rational basis” for raising the assessments. The court found that the tax hike was constitutional, according to a press release sent out on Tuesday, July 24 by Shandaken Town Supervisor Rob Stanley.
Stanley said he has been told by the town's attorney that because the case was decided by a jury, he does not expect an appeal to be an option for the plaintiffs. But Powers said the landowners have until October 3 to decide whether to appeal.
Stanley said the plaintiffs claimed that the upward reassessment of their properties violated equal protection under the United States Constitution. They argued that they were discriminated against while smaller, privately owned parcels and large, state-owned parcels were not reassessed.
Brian Matula, an Albany lawyer who represented the plaintiffs, told The Woodstock Times that the jury was required to consider several questions when deciding on the lawsuit. To win, the plaintiffs had to prove not only that they were treated differently than other comparable landowners, but that the town had no rational basis for doing so.
In the end, according to Stanley's press release, the jury decided that the plaintiffs were in fact treated differently -- but that the town had a reason to do so.
“The jury went straight to the heart of the matter,” Kyle W. Barnett, Shandaken’s attorney from the Poughkeepsie law firm Van DeWater & Van DeWater told the Watershed Post. “The town told the plaintiffs they were reassessed, but their reason was to bring equity.”
Matula disagreed. From the Woodstock Times:
“I don’t believe that there was any evidence to support the jury’s determination. Knowing the evidence, and hearing the testimony of Rosalie Boland, I was unable to discern any basis for Ms. Boland’s differing treatment of land owners. In fact, she has continued to maintain that there was no difference in treatment,” Matula said.
Powers said he felt that the raised assessments were in violation of the landowner's equal protection rights. That, he said, is why he entered the suit. The former Phoenicia Times publisher said assessments can only be based on the market value of the property and that other criteria are not lawful.
“When you selectively assess landowners based on size of the property, it’s the same as selecting red houses or blue houses or anything else an assessor can dream up,” Powers said.
A lawsuit six years in the making
The suit, which was filed in 2006 and challenged a 2005 assessment by the town, initially listed the town of Shandaken, the town’s Board of Assessment Review and its members, the town supervisor and the town assessor as defendants.
According to former town supervisor Bob Cross, who was named as a defendant in the lawsuit, the dispute stemmed from another lawsuit filed by New York State against the Town of Shandaken over the assessment of property. The state sued for over $1 million, accusing the town of assessing state land at higher rates than private property, Cross said.
Cross said the town reassessed the land at a rate of $600 per acre and then was met with the current lawsuit.
"The accusations were outlandish," Cross said. "I read the law and the land is supposed to equally assessed. In essence, that was not the case when [Rosalie Boland, then the Shandaken town assessor] changed the rates. She made equality."
The raised assessment led to some landowners coming together to challenge the town's decision -- which led to the current lawsuit.
Now that the jury has made a decision, Cross said that he hopes Shandaken can move forward from what he called a "politically driven" lawsuit.
"I hope we can put this behind us for Shandaken's sake," Cross said. "We need to work together. We are each other's brothers, we are each other's neighbors and we need to work in harmony."