OTISFIELD — Owners of camps in Heniger Park on Pleasant Lake are being told to prepare for opposition when the Heniger Park Reassessment Committee unveils proposed new property lease terms next March.
Some 39 property owners are fighting to keep lease fees affordable on camps they have owned for decades under a unique agreement with the town.
“Work with us. You'll get a better deal than the townspeople will give you,” committee member Len Adler told a dozen camp owners at Thursday night's committee meeting.
In 1965, the Board of Selectmen drew up agreements allowing people to lease lakeside lots in Heniger Park for fees ranging from $0 to $50 per year for 50 years. The leases expire between 2015 and 2032.
The 100 acres of mostly wooded land on Pleasant Lake was left to the town in 1943 by noted Broadway producer Jacob Heniger. The will stipulated that the Board of Selectmen decide what would be done with the real estate and that it be called Heniger Park.
Lessees were allowed to build, and most did, paying taxes on the buildings but not the land.
Each agreement differed, committee Chairman Hal Ferguson said.
The Heniger Park Reassessment Committee was formed earlier this year to make recommendations to selectmen on what to do once the Heniger Park leases begin to expire in 2015. In October, the committee voted to recommend that lease fees be two times the property tax rate, which for fiscal year 2014 is $11.55 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
Lease payments are now calculated by the assessed land value of $15,000 for back lots and $30,000 for lakefront lots, which is then multiplied by the mill rate of $11.55 per thousand. Then the fee is added on.
For example, Lot 1 is a lakefront lot assessed at $30,000. Multiplied by the 2014 mill rate of $11.55 plus the $50 fee means the camp owner is paying $396.50 for the opportunity of leasing the land. The camp owner also pays a property tax on the assessed value of their building or buildings.
If the same property were located on the back lot, which now has the $15,000 assessed land value, that owner would pay $223.25 plus the tax owed on the structure or structures on the lot.
The new lease terms would increase leases — some say double or quadruple the amount as land values are adjusted — a move that owners say may price them out of their longtime summer camps.
Adler and Ferguson and the other seven members of the committee, including Selectmen Rick Micklon, are charged with drawing up new lease terms. Both Adler and Ferguson said they are hearing from townspeople who feel the lessees got a great deal.
“There are people who think this is too good a deal,” Ferguson told camp owners.
Regardless of the nonbinding town meeting vote in June, selectmen in office as each lease expires could decrease or increase the amounts the Heniger Reassessment Committee has recommended. The decision will affect all taxpayers in Otisfield, board members said.
Camp owners ask for affordability
According to assessor records, it appears there are some 39 houses on Heniger Park Road. About 15 owners are from Massachusetts, five from Rhode Island, and others from Colorado, Florida, Connecticut, Georgia and Maine.
Two Mainers live in the park year-round, while others are seasonal residents who live in Norway, Windham, Portland, Raymond, Kennebunkport and Greene.
Camp owner Kathy Williamson said it's believed many of the lots were leased through word of mouth.
“We cherish these camps,” one owner said. "I ask you, I beg you to consider a lease that is affordable.”
If leaseholders can't afford the new fees, selectmen said they could give the lease back to the town and either remove any buildings or give them to the town.
Adler has said it was not surprising that Otisfield residents did not take advantage of the lots 50 years ago when property was not very valuable and what little money people had would probably not be used to build a camp in their hometown.
Selectmen said they are trying to be fair to townspeople and the camp owners and have compromised by agreeing to extend leases to 2040.
“The town owns the land. Why would they lease it out and not make money on it?” Ferguson asked.
He called the lease extension a "coup" for the camp owners.
“The town should get a return on its investment," he said.
Heniger Park camp owner Shirley Boyce of Norway said the leaseholders never tried to take advantage of the situation. “We paid what we were asked to pay,” she said.
“A deal was a deal for 50 years. You owe us nothing. We owe you nothing,“ Adler agreed.
Micklon said the board decided to form the Heniger Park Reassessment Committee and bring the issue to townspeople because there is no guarantee what the selectmen who are in office when the leases expire will do. The feeling, he said, is that if townspeople come to a conclusion, and particularly if they agree with what the board is proposing, chances are future selectmen will uphold that agreement.
“Do you suppose Mr. Heniger would agree with all this?” asked Boyce's husband, Jim.