Waterford Gun Club noise hurts property values, county rules
By Gail Geraghty
NORTH WATERFORD — In what may be a precedent-setting ruling, the Oxford County Board of Assessment Review (BAR) has granted the tax abatement appeal of a Waterford couple over gun noise from a nearby firing range.
“Thank you so much. We’ve waited a long time for this,” Debbie Howe told the county review board, following their unanimous vote June 20. Howe and her husband John have spent the last three years and $35,000 in legal fees in a bitter dispute with the Waterford Fish & Game Club, that they said illegally expanded facilities at their firing range on Route 118 in North Waterford, causing a significant increase in gun noise.
The ruling, providing the Howes with around $700 total savings on two years (2010 and 2011) of taxes, overturns the town’s earlier denial of abatement requests for those years. More significantly, however, it opens the door for similar tax abatement requests from any of the around 30 or so homeowners living within a mile and a half of the gun club. That’s because the county BAR members based their ruling, in large part, on a professional real estate appraiser and expert witness hired by the Howes who performed a statistical analysis resulting in a 7.5% loss of property value for the Howes’ 175-acre property and any other property within a 1.5-mile radius.
“The appraiser experienced the gunfire noise on several occasions and the intermittent gunfire is definitely a distraction and minimizes the peace and quiet enjoyment of the subject property,” stated the appraisal report.
The county BAR did more than review a report, however; they also spent months researching the gun noise appeal, and made site visits to the Howes’ property so they could hear the noise for themselves.
“I don’t think there’s any question that the noise has affected your property,” said OCBAR member Mike Mickeriz of Peru. Mickeriz added, “It seems the town is reluctant (to grant the Howes’ abatement) because it would be opening Pandora’s Box to other property owners” within the 1.5-mile radius.
OCBAR Chairman Bill French of Rumford said the estimated 7.5% diminution of property values was likely a conservative estimate, and therefore, he was satisfied the 10.5% diminution of value as required by state statutes had been reached, in this case.
Perhaps most significantly of all, the ruling may result in a town-wide revaluation of Waterford property assessments, which are currently significantly below market value and therefore don’t meet state valuation requirements. At the hearing, Waterford Selectmen Chairman Randy Lessard said the ruling would likely lead to a revaluation. “We’ll just have to put a new assessment on the town report,” he told a fellow selectman after the vote.
When questioned by resident Art Traficonte, who has also filed for a tax abatement, as to whether selectmen would reassess only the neighborhood, Lessard said it would be a town-wide reassessment. “We’re due, anyway,” Lessard added. The last time a professional appraisal was done was 2001.
Debbie Howe, hearing that, said, “Everyone (in town) is going to hate us” for believing their appeal triggered a revaluation that will result in higher tax assessments. But, she added, “I feel extremely violated by the town’s position” in maintaining that it had done nothing wrong in issuing permits for the club to improve its firing range and build a new clubhouse. The Howes said the town wasn’t even aware that part-time Code Enforcement Officer Albert Holden had issued the permits for skeet-shoot houses in 2005 and the clubhouse in 2006.
“No one in the town knew what was happening except the code enforcement officer, who unilaterally signed off the new building permits, one on the same day of application,” John Howe wrote in his comprehensive tax abatement appeal to the OXBAR. Howe said only former Selectmen Chairman John Bell made any substantial attempt to address the gun noise by requesting records from the club to determine whether use of the club’s range had grown substantially. But the club’s lawyer denied the town’s request, saying the town had no authority to seek their records under the town’s site plan review ordinance.
Lessard strongly denied that the town had acted improperly in either addressing the gun club noise or in denying the Howes’ tax abatement request. “We haven’t turned a deaf ear” to the issue, he said. Each time the Howes appealed, to selectmen, and then to the planning board, “Nobody has found that the town did anything wrong.”
Lessard said John Howe admitted to him that the tax appeal was more about “creating a public outcry” over the gun club noise than about getting tax relief.
Howe admitted that was true. “Nobody has listened to us, nobody . . . until now.”