What's a pretty view worth? A tax hit.
A revolt brews in New Hampshire over property-tax levies for some residents who have scenic views.
David Bischoff lights a gas lantern in his tiny cabin and gazes out the window. Two forested peaks rise beyond a snow-strewn field of hay. It's a view that's costing him dearly.
To keep homeowners informed, property tax assessors in New Hampshire have begun to spell out how much a noteworthy view factors into their appraisals. In Mr. Bischoff's case, his cabin, outhouse, and land were valued at $43,000 – but the mountain vista added $200,000 on top of that. That translated into an annual tax bill topping $4,000 on a rustic getaway he rarely visits.
"I could go to the Mount Washington Hotel for a month and pay less than the tax on this," says Bischoff. He points to more spectacular views across town that were assessed for far less. "My biggest complaint is the inconsistencies."
Oddities abound: farmers paying thousands on uninhabited barns, lakefront homeowners charged for each window facing water, and a blind man taxed on a $45,000 view he can't see.
The controversy taps common frustration with property taxes that shoot up unpredictably after opaque reassessments. Rather than accept their home values as mysteries akin to the pricing of gasoline or fashionable purses, New Hampshire residents pushed for more detailed explanations. What they got has triggered petitions, town hall meetings, and reform bills headed for debate in the coming weeks.
"All of the sudden people are looking at how [assessors] got the math, and that's not making them happy," says Arnie Arnesen, a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate in New Hampshire. The solution, however, isn't as simple as subtracting the view from assessments, she warns. "All you are doing by saying you are not going to tax the view is [shifting taxes to] everyone without a view."
Assessors say the value of a view can be determined by comparing recent sales of homes in the area. The process does involve some subjectivity, but assessments are based on documented data gathered on comparable properties, says John McSorley, assistant director of the state's Department of Revenue Administration.
"You are mirroring the market. The market is not an objective thing, it's the interaction between buyers and sellers ... and they are anything but consistent," says Tom Holmes, a longtime assessor in Conway, N.H. "Individual sales are not consistent, but over the course of many sales you can derive a statistical value." The state requires that assessors be able to show how they arrive at their conclusions, Mr. McSorley says.
Granite Staters, in particular, scrutinize assessments because their property taxes are high in the absence of income tax or sales tax. "After a while you find every flaw in that tax if you over rely on it," says Ms. Arnesen.
Leading the revolt against the view assessments is Tom Thompson, the son of a former Republican governor. His pickup truck says "Ax the View Tax" and his mantra, taken from the state's guidelines, is "fair and equitable taxation."
"I can show you the inconsistency and the subjectivity used by the assessors," says Mr. Thompson, as he offers a tour of his hometown.
On the road, he points to two homes on the same hillside. The white house was assessed for a $50,000 view, he says. The yellow house, which even the owner says has the same view: zip. Bischoff's vista may be 360 degrees, but his vantage on the same two peaks is more limited. Yet he was assessed four times as much.
"I ... don't believe that a view should be assessed, because it doesn't belong to me; I don't own it," says Thompson. "You can't measure it."
However, state assessors say the view component is not over and above the fair market value – just a part of it. After poring over market data in the early '90s, state officials found that buyers were seeking out mountain views as waterfront grew too expensive, says McSorley.
Assessors in other states routinely consider aspects of a property's location in assessing its value. Michael Evans, an appraiser based in Chico, Calif., says the price that local buyers of oceanfront are willing to pay depends partly on whether the crashing of waves is audible. The sound can add on six figures, he says.
"If [assessors] are doing their job right, they're going to recognize the difference in location," he says. But he's nonplussed by assessors in New Hampshire who itemize a property's amenities.
To bring uniformity to the process, several bills are pending in New Hampshire, including a ban on considering views in assessments.
One bill would essentially exempt agricultural buildings like barns and silos from the view assessments. There is talk of farmers looking to tear down old barns because of the view assessments, or planning to subdivide land to pay higher taxes.
"If the state doesn't step in and correct this issue of the views, we will lose our rural character," says Thompson.
Independent licensing is another proposal. Currently the state certifies that assessors meet training standards. But some argue that the job should include the ability to revoke licenses.
Currently, an appeals process exists, and when Bischoff complained about his cabin's assessment, the view's value was reduced to $75,000.
The private firm behind Orford's assessments did not answer numerous phone calls. But the CEO penned an op-ed in the Concord Monitor last month. "Despite all of the rhetoric and sensationalistic press, no one has said his or her assessment wasn't fair market value," wrote Gary Roberge of Avitar Associates of New England.