Maple Tree Place disputes tax value (7/16/09)

Owner wants appraisal based on revenue

July 16, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The corporate owner of Maple Tree Place is again contesting the shopping center’s appraisal, arguing that income generated by the property fails to justify the town’s valuation.

Inland Western filed a grievance heard by Williston listers last month. Listers rejected Inland’s request to reduce the shopping center’s appraised value and thus its property tax bill.

Now the Illinois-based company has filed an appeal, which will be heard Monday by the town’s Board of Civil Authority.

A written appeal from Wulsin Murphy LLP, a Massachusetts law firm representing Inland Western, asserts that income from the shopping center “does not support” the town’s $80.9 million appraisal. The letter also claims the appraisal is inequitable and disproportionate.

Efforts to obtain a further explanation were unsuccessful. Richard Wulsin, Inland Western’s lawyer, did not return a phone message. Matt Tramel, a spokesman for Inland, did not respond to questions before deadline.

Gerry Huetz, one of Williston’s three listers, said he was leery about talking in detail about the listers’ decision because it could affect the upcoming hearing. But he acknowledged that Inland’s lawyer wanted the appraisal to be based on Maple Tree Place’s income rather than the value of comparable properties.

“As in most cases this year, everyone speaks in general terms about the economy,” he said. “They talked about the vacancy rate and things like that. But these things are temporal.”

Maple Tree Place has struggled with vacancies. One of its largest stores, Linens ‘n Things, went bankrupt last year, and there are other empty office and retail spaces.

Listers felt the current value was fair, Huetz said. He noted the Taft Corners commercial district continues to be a desirable location despite the recession.

“This whole corner of Williston is the hottest real estate market in the whole state when you come right down to it,” he said.

Maple Tree Place is the town’s highest-valued property. Its appraisal is more than double that of the second-highest-valued property, the IBM facility off Redmond Road.

In fact, the 489,000-square-foot shopping center accounts for about 5 percent of Williston’s $1.6 billion grand list, the total value of all property. If the value was significantly reduced, it could force budget cuts or tax increases for other property owners.

The issue has already been raised by Susan Lamb, the town’s finance manager. In a recent memo, she urged the Selectboard to be conservative when setting the property tax rate, noting that if Inland wins its appeal it could have a “significant impact” on the grand list.

Without a change in valuation, Inland’s property tax bill for the current fiscal year would be $1,315,405.68, according to Deb Beckett, Williston town clerk and treasurer.

Inland purchased Maple Tree Place for $102.3 million four years ago. Before the sale, the town had pegged the value at $42.2 million, raising questions about the appraisal’s accuracy. Hinman has said he believes other business considerations inflated the sale price beyond the property’s actual value.

After a town-wide reappraisal last year upped the shopping center’s value, Inland also filed a grievance but dropped the matter before it reached the Board of Civil Authority.

During Monday’s hearing, Inland will be given a set amount of time to argue its case, Beckett said. Then the board will form an inspection committee to physically examine the property and make a recommendation. The full board will vote on the appeal at a later date.

The Board of Civil Authority hearing is scheduled for Monday, July 20 at 6:15 p.m. It takes place at Williston Town Hall.