Press-Republican

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December 29, 2012

Lewis Family Farm challenges property-tax increase

ESSEX — A tax grievance against the Town of Essex contests a $1.25 million increase in the Lewis Family Farm property assessment. 

Unresolved since 2011, the matter is now lodged in Essex County Supreme Court as an Article 7 challenge by farm owner Salim B. “Sandy” Lewis relating to valuation of property and buildings on the property in Essex.

26 PERCENT INCREASE

Pending resolution of the 2011 grievance, Lewis said in a recent interview, a second one was filed this year.

Tax data on the consolidated 1,111.12-acre farm property shows the town’s assessment rose from $2.95 million in 2004 to $4.78 million in 2007. 

Essex assessors revalued the property again, to $6.03 million, in 2009 — a 26 percent jump in two years.

The increase, in part, reflects the addition of farmworker housing that Lewis Farm attorney Martina Baillie says is unfinished but assessed at full value.

The farm’s property-tax bill went from $19,188 in 2005 to $30,507 in 2011, according to tax records.

A similar increase in assessment occurred at the Lewis farmhouse and barn on 5.2 acres, which was revalued from $292,000 in 2004 to $413,000 in 2009.

EXEMPTIONS EYED

The property is located on land zoned for agricultural use in the Champlain Valley. Lewis believes the Town of Essex has not applied the farm exemption in assessment review.

Its challenge is now parsing agricultural exemption and the vagary of farm-use definition found in law.

Valuation, Baillie said, has to reflect the economics of the 1,100-acre parcel with a working farm on it.

To get at the legal facts, she said, Lewis Farm hired two “agricultural” appraisers to test the town’s assessment.

“An appraisal looks at two approaches: land-sales comparison versus a cost approach,” Baillie explained.

“There is a third, income-capitalization approach, but that is more complicated with a start-up company.”

The crux of contention stems from the manner in which exemptions were applied — or not applied — to farm-use structures.

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