Aquinnah’s recently completed town-wide revaluation has some unwelcome surprises for beach lot owners. But for a group of long-lost taxpayers, owners of nine parcels previously thought to be town-owned, the tax bill will arrive like a winning lottery ticket.
Aquinnah will experience a drop in real estate value of $3.2 million, or 0.5 percent, on a total valuation of $795,147,849, according to preliminary figures provided by principal assessor Angela Cywinski.
An overall drop in the nation’s real estate market value, reflected in the Aquinnah assessments, did not affect one group of town property owners. Owners of private beach parking lots, many located along Moshup Trail and which provide access to a long stretch of unspoiled beach, can expect to see significant increases in their tax bills on some of the most desirable and, the town assessor said, long undervalued real estate on Martha’s Vineyard.
Ms. Cywinski said tax bills the state Department of Revenue (DOR) preliminarily approved, which will be mailed pending formal approval, would only begin to reflect the actual value of lots previously assessed as unbuildable beach lots but used and sold with parking spots.
Ms. Cywinski said beach parking lot owners would continue to get a bargain. Although some properties increased by more than 100 percent, the increase is minimal relative to the actual value she placed, and DOR rejected, on the beach parking spaces.
Ms. Cywinski said DOR was unwilling to certify values based on an average $230,000 sale price of a beach-side parking space because there was not enough historical data.
“I stated my case to the Department of Revenue, but because there was no historical analysis ever done — this was the first time this issue had been brought up to the Department of Revenue — I didn’t have quite enough to state my case,” she told The Times.
The Aquinnah tax rate currently stands at $3.86 per $1,000. She estimates the tax rate will rise to $3.96.
DOR requires towns to complete a revaluation every three years. However, DOR asked that Aquinnah bump its scheduled revaluation by one year to provide for more staggering of towns, resulting in a four-year gap.
“This is a revaluation year,” Ms. Cywinski said. “Any time a town has to make major changes that are going to be significant, you make them during a revaluation. When I came here in 2007 there was not enough time to address this kind of issue.”
Most lots existed well before the town implemented rules that prohibit the creation of parking lots. Irrespective, the state requires that a true value be assigned. “You have to constantly look at your town, and when you see something change, you need to address it to see if there is a change in use or value,” she said.
Ms. Cywinski said the town revaluation provided an opportunity to look closely at beach parking spaces. In the past, she said, lots were valued as unbuildable and assessed at 5, 10, or 15 percent of market value, depending on size and use. DOR wanted to see some consistency.
The market value of exclusive beach access, often in the form of a key to a locked gate, has never been included in the calculations used to determine property assessments, Ms. Cywinski told The Times. She said the average selling price of a parking spot in one of the more than 14 gated lots is $286,667.
She requested $230,000. DOR would only allow her to increase the market value of beach lots to 10 percent of market value as an unbuildable lot and not include the market value of a parking spot.
“I had enough information but not enough for the Department of Revenue’s parameters,” she said.
Ms. Cywinski said that could change based on future sales data.
Ms. Cywinski said the issue of true value for the town’s estimated 200 private beach spaces arose in connection with several transactions in which a trend began to emerge. “People were taking these parking lots as part of their wealth and estate planning,” she said. “Appraisers wanted to know how much a parking spot was worth because they were doing estate planning for a client.”
At the time she had no ready answer. Ms. Cywinski said the board of assessors questioned why parking spots were not assessed at full value. “They wanted to know why it was not being addressed,” she said. “When the revaluation came up, it was included in the scope.”
She began examining sales for the past ten years on Moshup Trail and in Chilmark, where a deed to a sliver of beach comes with a key to a much coveted parking lot.
“I saw that a parking space in a lot went from $210,000 to $300,000, depending on the market and what somebody was going to pay,” she said. As an example she said, one man paid $940,000 for three spots in the West Chop Club parking lot located on a 10-acre property east of Philbin Beach.
Last September, a woman sold her house in Chilmark. The house sale included the deeded sale of a parking spot in the 18-space Goff Beach Association (GBA) parking lot for $300,000.
The GBA lot is comprised of 10 separate strip lots. The owners formed a deeded association to provide beach parking on their contiguous properties. The number of parking spaces is assigned by deed.
In the past, the lots were assessed at 5 percent of value. The lots will now be assessed at 10 percent of market value. In most cases, land values will increase from approximately $100,000 to $200,000, still well below the value of the parking spaces and well above earlier valuations of about $17,000.
Ms. Cywinski said the landowners are still getting a deal because the town historically failed to account for the sales.
For example, Andrew Dintenfass is assessed $215,500 for a beach lot with five parking spaces. Ms. Cywinski said he recently sold a one-fifth interest for $250,000.
“I tried,” Ms. Cywinski said. “I have sales, but it’s never been tracked so this is the first year. I mean they have come up from $17,000 when I came here five years ago — so I am making progress.”
Ms. Cywinski said the analysis must been seen in the context of the overall tax burden all town property owners share. “This is a use and this is a perk. Its a perk to have a parking space on Moshup Trail when there is no parking.”
Future tax bills will also include the value of docks and personal property on five town-owned lease lots the town owns in Menemsha that were long overlooked but are included in the scope of the revaluation.
In an unusual arrangement that has been the source of past friction, the town of Aquinnah owns a triangular piece of land that juts across the creek and into Menemsha Harbor giving the town control over six leases, three on each side of the spit that begins at the end of North Road by the Galley restaurant and ends at the Coast Guard dock.
The land was deeded by the state to both towns in 1965 with the stipulation it be “reserved for and made available to commercial fishermen.”
The town currently leases the lots at an annual cost of $450 to William “Buddy” Vanderhoop, Hollis Smith, Wendy Swolinsky, Hugh Taylor, Lynne Murphy, and Camille Rose.
The increases are minimal. For example, the value of Hugh Taylor’s dock will increase from $0 to $6,900. William “Buddy” Vanderhoop will see a similar increase from $0 to $5,000.
Change in Aquinnah, particularly when it comes with a cost, is rarely well received. Ms. Cywinski said she has already heard from people unhappy with the news.
She explained that there is no alternative but to fairly assess town property. “We have to do this,” she said. “I had one person come in and they were a little miffed. I said I only do what state law tells me to do.”
House in order
For years Aquinnah, once called Gay Head, earned a reputation for informality that carried over into the conduct of town business. The result was sloppiness that often benefited a small group of year-round property owners familiar with town affairs but resulted in lost revenue to the town and meant that other taxpayers shouldered a larger share of the burden.
At times taxes went uncollected, checks were not deposited in a timely manner, bills were unsent, town officers and employees were unsupervised.
In 2006, selectmen, bent on changing such municipal habits, asked the Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services to conduct an unconstrained review of the town’s structure, management, personnel, and general financial practices.
The DOR report released in March 2006 was especially critical of the board of assessors, which had remained relatively unchanged for more than 23 years.
The DOR review said that the office of the Aquinnah assessors did not maintain accurate, up-to-date records, and the assessors did the absolute minimum in order to generate a tax commitment year after year.
The beach lot valuations are part of a process of putting Aquinnah’s assessing department in order that began when Ms. Cywinski took the job five years ago in March 2007.
In her first year on the job, Ms. Cywinski, the town’s first state certified, full-time assessor, oversaw the town’s most complete revaluation in more than a decade. In the process, she corrected scores of inaccurate property records, eliminated elderly exemptions granted incorrectly, and updated and corrected faulty town records.
This time around, Ms. Cywinski examined the records for all town-owned lots. She discovered that more than 20 years ago the lots were placed in the town’s name, but the titles were never officially transferred.
The lots date to the 1870s. The owners will receive tax bills for pre-existing, non-conforming lots that could be worth between $400,000 and $600,000.
“It’s going to be a surprise for some taxpayers,” Ms. Cywinski said.
by Nelson Sigelman