Press-Republican

August 4, 2013

Court settles Lewis Farm assessment lawsuit

KIM SMITH DEDAM
Press-Republican

ESSEX — Legal action brought by the Lewis Family Farm against Essex tax assessors is settled, with assessment of the property dropped from $6.03 million to $2.3 million.

Documents filed on Friday say parties agreed to resolve their differences without further litigation on terms of the current settlement.



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Farm owners Salim “Sandy” B. and Barbara Lewis were in Essex County Court Thursday for the final order.

Martina Baillie, an attorney representing the farm in the matter, told the Press-Republican that the $2.3 million includes farmland.

Court documents show the farmhouse is revalued at $129,500, down from $413,000.

The settlement also canceled “any and all interest and penalties” the Lewises might have owed for town, county and school taxes for three tax years straddling litigation. 

SUED TOWN

By court order, the agreed-upon valuation remains in effect through 2016.

The decision ends nearly a decade of marked property-value increases at the Lewis Farm, according to tax records.

In 2004, the Lewises’ farmhouse, land and all agricultural buildings — including three parcels recently sold — was set at $2.95 million. By 2009, that number had doubled.

The farmers filed a grievance in 2011 with Essex Board of Assessors. 

Achieving no resolution, they sued the town.

RECALCULATED

The court ordered that the town recalculate the Lewis’s tax bills for the past three years.

Mr. Lewis said their property taxes ran between $60,000 and $70,000 annually.

“It appears our taxes going forward will be under $20,000 per year,” he estimated.

The upshot, he said, is a warning.

“In taxing us over the past decade, they have never set foot on the farm. The tax situation is threatening this farm and every other farm. Why? Because the government keeps spending.”

‘NO REVIEW’

Smaller communities are powerless to change the numbers in state and federal government, he added.

But that means local assessors have to be able and willing to verify their work, backing their figures with facts and face-to-face communication, he said.

Baillie said grievance proceedings did not prove fruitful in the first year, when the town offered assessment reduction from $6.03 million to $4.7 million.

A year passed and Lewises filed a second grievance. Essex reduced the revaluation to $4 million.

 

‘NOT HONEST’

“At most risk are the older set who aren’t questioning the people they have put into government office,” Lewis added.

“And they’re (government leaders) not honest. We built silos that we sold in 2012. Not once did any assessor from the Town of Essex come up here and say, ‘By the way, those grain bins qualify for permanent (agricultural) exemption.’ 

“Instead, they looked at my grain bins and illegally taxed them. And we paid the taxes.

“My wife Barbara is a trusting individual. She writes the checks.”

TAX BURDENS

The settlement order, dated Aug. 1, was directed to the Town of Essex, the Town of Essex Board of Assessment Review and to David Sayre, chairman of the Board of Assessors.

The order from Acting Supreme Court Judge Richard B. Meyer was signed by both Mr. and Mrs. Lewis and by Town of Essex Supervisor Sharon Boisen.

“The counsel for the town said this isn’t a settlement — this is a surrender,” Lewis said when asked about comments made at the courthouse.

“I have no comment,” Boisen told the Press-Republican via email on Friday.

But Lewis said the court decision rendered a degree of fairness not often found in tax grievance proceedings.

“This judge had the guts yesterday to establish what is and what is not fair in this county,” he said on Friday.

COSTS PASSED DOWN

Lewis railed about continued reliance on local property taxes for public revenue.

A former Wall Street broker, whose father Salim L. “Cy” Lewis was an early managing partner with the now dissolved Bear, Stearns & Co., he said present-day property-tax structures came into being around the early 1970s.

“It began when costs of federal programs were passed down to the states and from state programs down to the counties. We are turning to property-taxes-in-lieu-of-income to fund things like education and pensions and health care. 

“We make promises we can’t keep — so we send the bill to somebody else to pay it. If you do enough of that, you will crush the value of property.”

Mr. Lewis said their farmland is where his wife wanted to come and live and work.

“She had fond childhood memories from her father (Dr. Hermann Lisco). He was dean of Harvard Medical School and had come to cure from tuberculosis at Trudeau Sanitarium (in Saranac Lake). 

“She came to the North Country because of her father.”

‘SHATTERED WELL-BEING’

The Lewises have considered selling their property for use as a nonprofit educational facility. 

The three unfinished farm worker houses centered in an Adirondack Park Agency permit battle two years ago still need septic systems, but they would likely be useful as dormitory space or living quarters at an agricultural school, Mr. Lewis observed.

In hindsight, he said, the town tax assessment case challenged something fundamental to their sense of well-being here.

“It shattered a certain something about how we feel about our home and our community.”

Email Kim Smith: kdedam@pressrepublican.com