Toronto homeowners seek lower taxes
By Dan Hust
WHITE LAKE The Town of Bethel and 50 property owners will square off in Sullivan County Supreme Court this week over tax assessments.
The landowners all live in the Chapin Estate development in proximity to the Toronto Reservoir near White Lake, and they are arguing that the reduced water levels in the reservoir have lessened the values of their properties, thus warranting tax reductions.
And the reductions many of them are asking for are significant.
Beverly Mills, for example, owns a 6.43-acre lot and five-bedroom, three-story mansion not far from the dam and market-valued at $2.63 million. She’s asking for the assessment to be reduced from $1.29 million to just $180,000, a decrease of $1.1 million.
Down Toronto’s former shoreline, Pamela Hirsch owns a 5.12-acre parcel with a three-bedroom contemporary market-valued at nearly $2.4 million. She’s asking for an assessment of $1.16 million to be lowered to $180,000, a $982,000 drop.
In fact, 28 of the 39 parcels listed in the suit against the town are looking for assessment reductions that exceed half a million dollars each.
The requested reductions total more than $23.6 million.
“This is going to be some case,” Bethel Tax Assessor Marguerite Brown acknowledged. “... We have an ugly mess here.”
Jacobowitz and Gubits attorney John Thomas, representing the property owners, argued that the assessments are based on the lots having waterfront.
Toronto’s water level has fluctuated over the past year, leaving many docks and boats high and dry during the prime recreational season, though a rising water height has recently allowed some boats and docks to be put back in.
Repeated emails for comment to reservoir owner Alliance Energy went unanswered, but the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation’s Bill Rudge said yesterday that the water level was 1,206 above sea level on August 25, still down from its typical 1,220 feet but up from a low earlier this year of 1,170 feet.
Thomas pointed out that five Chapin parcels did get their assessments lowered by between 25 and 45 percent, but Bethel’s Board of Assessment Review denied the grievances of his clients.
Brown said the reason these properties did not see reductions is because she did not assess them as waterfront, since Alliance actually owns a 50-foot “buffer zone” between its property and the landowners’ parcels.
Instead, she said she used neighboring land sales to determine values.
However, that buffer zone is publicly-accessible, as is most of the reservoir itself, and Brown acknowledged that the landowners purchased their property with that access foremost in mind.
“Water no doubt influenced the price,” she said, noting that a vacant 10-acre parcel fetched an unheard-of $1 million in 2007, when the reservoir was full.
An argument may also be raised in court that Brown temporarily reduced the assessments of homes surrounding Swinging Bridge Reservoir in Mongaup Valley.
But Brown said she did that in response to an emergency repair of Swinging Bridge’s dam, which forced a water reduction. The situation with Toronto, she said, is not so clear-cut, with conflicting reasons given for the lack of water.
Some residents and government officials blame Alliance for running its hydroelectric operations at the expense of Toronto’s recreational opportunities, and of undertaking a valve repair that they never finished.
Alliance did not respond to recent requests for comment, but back at the end of July, Alliance Vice President of Operations and New Development Joseph Klimaszewski said, “We have not withdrawn any water from Toronto beyond the minimum required to support the ecosystem in Black Lake Creek since early January.
“And while it may have been the wettest June on record in many of the downstate areas, this has NOT been the case in the Mongaup Valley,” he added. “In fact, there have only been two rain events in the valley since 6/1/09 during which we had more than 1 inch of rain, and those events allowed us to capture the only significant increase to the reservoir since the summer began.”