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Rising land values affect property assessments

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CANTON — Escalating land values are making ripples across St. Lawrence County.

Within the last two years, the state has pushed for communities to maintain a 95 percent valuation on all types of property, including commercial, residential, farm and vacant land, and utilities. Previously, the priority was on residences, county Director of Real Property Darren W. Colton said.

“Now they all have to be at 95 percent to pass muster,” he said.

Revaluations done this year in DeKalb, Hermon, Lawrence and Potsdam have increased land values. In Potsdam, Hermon and DeKalb, tillable land is now valued at $900 per acre. In Lawrence, the value was set at $800 per acre.

“The land change is certainly justified from what it was based on sales,” Mr. Colton said.

However, some property owners have not seen the escalation as appropriate.

In DeKalb, landowners shocked by increases as high as 200 percent or more pleaded with the Town Council earlier this year to have Assessor C. Bruce Green file the previous year’s roll with an across-the-board increase, which was not possible because he already had signed the roll.

Out of 1,500 parcels, 17 property owners have pursued small claims actions beyond adjustments made by Mr. Green and the Board of Assessment Review.

“There’s so many more that should have,” property owner Kenneth S. Masters Jr. said.

But Mr. Colton said the 10 percent of DeKalb property owners who filed grievances is not any more than expected in a revaluation year.

“It’s just taking its course,” said Mr. Colton, who lives in DeKalb. “Most of what I hear is positive about the reval. Somebody’s satisfied.”

However, Karen A. Murray, another DeKalb property owner, said questions remain about Mr. Green’s methods, data inaccuracies and the limited number of sales that were available.

“The town records are very inaccurate and not up to date,” she said. “The formula was a major concern. No one knows how those land values were derived. The assessor has yet to prove the basis for the formula. If it had been based on sales, there would have been less grumbling.”

Even though DeKalb was not a hot market, there were enough sales for Mr. Green and the state to be comfortable, he said.

“How many sales are enough?” Mr. Green said. “You can’t invent sales.”

The formula was simply the value of acreage as determined by sales over the last three years times the number of acres, Mr. Green said.

If assessments are not at market value, then others pay taxes for those whose values should have been raised, he said.

“The job of the assessor is to balance that out,” he said.

DeKalb’s numbers also compared favorably with what was going on in the neighboring town of Hermon, which conducted its revaluation at the same time.

The two communities share a school district.

How a revaluation would affect property owners in Macomb, which has four school districts, led to the resignation Tuesday of Assessor Christopher B.T. Coffin when he could not garner the support of the Town Council.

In 2009, Mr. Coffin, under pressure from the town board, tossed the revaluation he had conducted and used a 2008 roll with a 10 percent increase.

Mr. Coffin did not return a call for comment on his resignation, but Supervisor George A. Blatchley said the board did not think a revaluation was a good idea unless they were conducted at the same time in all of the towns, including Macomb, that make up the school districts of Gouverneur, Hammond, Morristown and Heuvelton.

“There’s no doubt sales are up. I think the board felt if those other towns did a reval at the same time then everything would be fair,” Mr. Blatchley said. “We would have been the first. We just felt it would be unfair to people in Macomb.”

Mr. Blatchley suggested the county association of assessors should discuss coordinating revaluations in towns that share school districts.

The town will advertise to find a replacement for Mr. Coffin, who recently was appointed to a six-year term. Mr. Green’s term in DeKalb is up in September and he intends to reapply.

Whether it is Mr. Green who is reappointed or someone else, the town will ask its assessor in the future to better prepare board members for the repercussions of a revaluation.

“We didn’t know what questions to ask. That was part of it,” DeKalb Supervisor Larry D. Denesha said. “I think the consensus of the board is we’re not interested in doing another revaluation, at least not in the near future.”

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