PARIS – The Oxford County Board of Review voted 3-1 against granting property tax abatements to 12 residents of the Harding Hill subdivision in Stoneham at a hearing held Wednesday.

While the board members agreed that the town’s assessment practices needed improvement, the majority indicated they did not believe the town had intentionally discriminated against subdivision residents.

Harding Hill residents indicated interest in pursuing the matter in Oxford County Superior Court.

“I think there’s inequity here myself,” said Norman Ferguson, the lone member voting to grant the abatements. “Maybe discrimination and inequity are synonymous.”

Ferguson was most concerned that the properties on Harding Hill were assessed at a value greater than their purchase price. That ranged from a property that was purchased in 2000 for $80,000 and assessed in 2006 for about $155,600, an increase of 194.5 percent, to a property that was purchased in 2000 for $59,000 and assessed in 2006 for about $61,000, an increase of 3.4 percent.

Ferguson said several properties in Stoneham were assessed much lower than their market value, including one in another subdivision that is listed as having a $291,000 market value and is assessed at $111,000.

“I think there is discrimination here,” he said during the vote. He asked that the board give a 16 percent reduction in the assessed valuation of the Harding Hill properties.

Fred Packard, the fifth member of the board, left for a commitment in Vermont before the vote was taken, but expressed his belief that a reduction was in order. However, he abstained from the vote, leaving the decision up to the remaining board members.

Jodi Keniston said some of the change in value came as a result of the time between the purchase and the assessment. She was not comfortable with assigning a reduction because there had not been proof of overt discrimination. Soon after, Wade Rainey entered a motion that the abatements be denied on that basis. Keniston seconded the motion. Both board members, along with Michael Noble, voted against granting the abatements.

The board’s decision follows an April 18 tax abatement hearing in Stoneham in which attorney Brad Pattershall argued on behalf of the Harding Hill people and attorney William H. Dale argued for Stoneham selectmen, who also serve as the town’s assessors.

Pattershall said in that hearing that the subdivision was being unfairly assessed at a higher rate, and cited properties in town that had more favorable rates of assessment. According to selectman John Collins, the Harding Hill properties range in assessment value from $35,000 to $155,000.

Dale said mitigating factors such as tree growth and steep inclines led to the lower assessments on the properties cited by the Harding Hill residents.

The board agreed that the assessments were unequal and that assessments on the rest of the town were lagging behind the higher assessments on the subdivision. Keniston said that is a common occurrence. Rainey said the Harding Hill lots would have a higher value, but needed to be assessed at a rate that was equitable to the town.

“They’ve got a problem in this town and they’ve got to straighten it out,” he said.

Collins said the town was “bumping up the lakefront property as quickly as we can” to make up the difference, and that selectmen intend to increase lakefront values by a double-digit percentage this year.

“And I’m a lakefront owner and I don’t like it,” he laughed.

Packard recommended a full revaluation of the town properties to revise the assessment values. Collins said the board intends to bring in an outside firm to do that, but expects that it will take up to three years to find a firm and two years to complete the revaluation. He said voters will decide whether or not to proceed with the matter at a special town meeting.

Collins said the Harding Hill lots are “woefully under-assessed at the moment” and that the revaluation would increase their assessment value.

Ferguson said the residents could still take the matter to the Oxford County Superior Court.

Gail Meka, a Harding Hill resident whose property is the most valuable in the subdivision, said the higher rates did not begin until 2003. She said that while her assessed land value has increased 754 percent since 2002, selectman Neal Littlefield’s property, which includes waterfront, has only gone up 4 percent in the same time period.

Collins said he would not be able to address Meka’s complaints without seeing the data. He said he was pleased with the board’s decision, but wished the matter could have been handled in an informal manner with the cooperation of the property owners.

Meka said the residents intend to take the matter to Superior Court.

“The law’s on our side,” she said. “We’re going to appeal.”

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