Homeowners question fairness of revaluation

| 01 Mar 2012 | 11:47

WEST MILFORD — The view from the deck of Terry Zielinski’s Kitchell Lake home is picture perfect. It is serene, peaceful, and shows a bucolic scene of lakeside living.

But living on the lake is coming with a heftier tax burden for Zielinski and many other homeowners - possibly a lot more - after the township's revaluation process. And while every home in the township has had its assessment raised during the process, some homeowners will realize a considerable hike in their tax bill when the 2012 budget numbers are finalized. That is something that isn't sitting well with Zielinski and some of his neighbors.

Kitchell Lake John Braen has lived on Kitchell Lake for over a decade. He said this new revaluation has caused a larger disparity between lakeside properties and those not on the lake.

“Over the last 40 years, houses on the lake have been higher,” said Braen, “but it’s been a traditional spread. This new revaluation causes a larger disparity.”

Braen said the assessment for lakeside properties in his neighborhood increased an average of 2.13 times while those properties not on the lake increased 1.64 times.

There are 84 homes in the Kitchell Lake Community; 35 of them are lakefront. Each homeowner owns an equal share of the community, including the lake and the roads, and pays the same amount of dues each year - $625. Everyone has access to the lake and beach. From the township they receive garbage and recycling service as well as police and fire.

The last township-wide revaluation came 23 years ago.

Some homeowners in this well-established community will actually see decreases in their taxes this year while others will see significant increases. Zielinski’s taxes are going up.

“My taxes are $12,000 now,” said Zielinski, who moved here over 20 years ago. “Now some guy shows up and says because I live on the lake my value is now $100,000 more?”

He estimates he will pay an additional 15 percent in taxes, based on the estimates given by the assessing company, That comes to an additional $1,700 a year.

Peter Schaefers is a nine-year resident of Kitchell Lake. He said that after looking at the new assessments online, it seems those living on the water are being treated unfairly.

“There are a number of residents living on the water in West Milford,” said Schaefers. “Judging by what took place here in Kitchell Lake, people on the water are getting hammered.”

Is it fair? Brian Townsend is the assessor in the West Milford. He said the difference in assessments can be attributed to many different factors. Some homes may have been conservatively assessed before or held their value better through the declining market. Some homes have had work done on them over the years that was not included in the old assessed value. And, yes, lakefront property is generally worth more than homes not on a lake.

“It's what the market tell us,” said Townsend. “Lakefront properties have held their values better than others. There are a finite number of those properties on the lake.”

In Pinecliff Lake, for example, lakefront property assessments went up between 1.88 and 3.15 times their old assessment. A large majority of them more than doubled in assessed value. Off-lake properties in Pinecliff increased between 1.47 and 3.07 times their old values, but most of them were just under twice the old value.

In the Awosting area, the story is about the same. Lakefront properties more than doubled in assessed value while most off-lake properties were under that amount.

A few examples from the Kitchell Lake community show that a lakefront property previously valued at $194,400 increased to $415,400, more than doubling. That homeowner’s taxes are estimated to go up 14.83 percent. A similar off-lake property was assessed at $191,500 previously and increased by just over 1.6 times to $314,800. This homeowner will see a 10.65 percent decrease in taxes.

“Should I pay $7,000 more than my neighbor across the street for the same services?” asked Schaefers.

Zielinski suggested it would be more fair to raise everyone an equal amount, for example 5 percent. But Townsend explained that’s not the purpose of a revaluation. It’s not to raise more taxes; rather it is to redistribute the tax burden more fairly. Municipalities do revaluations, Townsend said, to determine an equitable value of the homes.

“It's a redistribution of the pie,” said Townsend. “We don't know if the basis was equitable to begin with.” Adding 5 percent doesn’t achieve equity, he added.

Besides the number of years since the last revaluation, the township thought it beneficial to go through this process because of the number of tax appeals it had received. So many homeowners were appealing their taxes and winning because of the declining real estate market. On top of that, the county ordered it.

How they arrive at the assessments

The process arriving at the new assessments took about a year to complete. The township council hired an independent company to do the town-wide revaluation, Appraisal Systems, Inc. Appraisal Systems, Inc. sent staff members to every property in the township. They documented livable space, number of bedrooms and bathrooms and amenities. They used comparable sales to arrive at the final numbers.

But in the case of Kitchell Lake, Braen said there haven’t been any sales in a while. There are five homes for sale now, he said, but nothing has moved in the last year. Townsend said in cases like that, comparable home sales in other lake communities were used to arrive at the values.

The company completed the process last fall and notified residents of their new assessments by mail. Residents had a week to respond, letting the company know if they would be challenging that assessment.

Want to challenge? There is still time to do that, according to Townsend. Residents have until May 1 to make their argument against the new assessments. Those hearings are with the Passaic County Board of Taxation. But, he cautions, you don’t just go in front of the board and say my neighbor is paying less than I am. He said you have to demonstrate to the tax board the value of your property based on comparable sales. Having a professional appraisal helps, he added.

The actual numbers for taxes are not yet available since both the township and the school board are working on their 2012 budgets. The outlook from these homeowners, though, is not optimistic. They feel taxes will keep increasing, even if there is bit of a break for some homeowners now.

“It's (taxes) always going to keep going up,” said Zielinski, “because there's no place else to get it.”

To view any assessments in the township, go to www.asinj.com and click on Revaluation on the right. Then select Current Revaluations at the top, then West Milford. All communities are numbered. Lake communities are further broken down into lakefront and non-lakefront. The properties on lakes have an "L" in their name. For example, Pinecliff Lake is neighborhood 8; its lake properties are neighborhood 08L