BY LOHR McKINSTRY Press-Republican
---- — KEENE — The towns of Keene and North Hudson have lost an appeal of a court decision that had greatly reduced the Ausable Club’s property assessments.
The Appellate Division of State Supreme Court recently upheld State Supreme Court Justice Robert Muller’s 2011 ruling that North Hudson’s and Keene’s combined $20.3 million assessment on club lands in the towns was too high.
The club, which is legally incorporated as the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, owns more than 7,000 acres in North Hudson and Keene. The suit covered the years 2006 to 2008.
Both the club and the town hired experts who issued appraisal reports on the property. The club hired Donald Fisher, while the towns retained Paul Wicker; both are based in Syracuse.
A 5,000-acre parcel in the Town of Keene had its assessment reduced from $17.9 million to $7.6 million by the court. The town’s appraiser said the Keene parcel was worth $20.1 million, while the club’s expert valued it at $4.5 million.
A 413-acre tract in North Hudson went from $2.4 million to $637,000 in Muller’s original ruling. The club’s appraiser said it was worth $333,000, while the town’s consultant put it at $1.6 million.
Keene Town Supervisor William Ferebee said he had no comment on the decision but that his Town Council has decided not to appeal.
He pointed out that the Appellate Division’s decision was unanimous, so the town would need permission from the court to continue to the State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court.
North Hudson Town Supervisor Ronald Moore said they have not decided whether to appeal.
“We are obviously disappointed with this decision. We’ll meet with our attorney and our Board of Assessors to determine how best to proceed.”
For legal counsel, the towns were represented by David Murphy of Albany, while the club hired Dennis Phillips of Glens Falls.
Commenting on behalf of the club, Phillips said in an email that he was surprised the towns appealed Muller’s decision.
“The trial court (Muller) considered comprehensive appraisal reports and heard three days of expert testimony, after which it produced a detailed and well-reasoned opinion holding that the tax assessments for two of the three wilderness parcels were excessive.
“That opinion, which set a valuation of the parcels that was significantly lower than that advanced by the towns but higher on a per-acre basis than any like-kind sale in the history of the Adirondacks, plainly demonstrated that the court had carefully analyzed the wilderness property and the comparable sales and considered the positions of all sides.”
Phillips said that many members of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve are property owners and residents of the Town of Keene and are strong supporters of the community and Keene Central School.
The club has many public hiking trails, he said.
On part of the property, which includes Upper and Lower Ausable Lakes, the east branch of the Ausable River and Marcy Swamp, the state has a conservation easement and pays 71 percent of the tax bill; the club pays 29 percent.
The Ausable Club is the name of the club of the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, which was formed in 1887 to save the lands around Beede’s Hotel from lumbering.
The hotel, in the Keene hamlet of St. Huberts, became the clubhouse and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Club members have included 1930s Harvard University President James Bryant Conant, painter Harold Weston and the U.S. Secretary of War during World War II Henry L. Stimson, who blazed a trail up nearby Noonmark Mountain that is still in use.
FUNDS IN ESCROW
The towns and school districts involved have already paid property-tax refunds to the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, Phillips said. The taxing entities had placed money in escrow after the suit was filed, in the event refunds were necessary.
The exact amount of the refunds was not available, he said, but the real savings will come in the future through consecutive years of lower assessments.
“Over a period of prospective years, the reduced assessments will result in lower tax payments, unless those collections are counterbalanced by (tax) rate increases,” he said.
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