Board denies appeal by Maple Tree Place (8/20/09)

Tax value remains pegged at $80.9 million

Aug. 20, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The Board of Civil Authority rejected an appeal that could have reduced the tax bill for the corporate owner of Williston’s priciest property by more than $200,000.


    File photo
Inland Western, owner of Maple Tree Place, sought a tax break from the town, but was denied on appeal.

Inland Western, the owner of Maple Tree Place, had sought the tax break, arguing that the slumping real estate market and numerous vacancies make the property worth $15 million less than the $80.9 million appraised value.

But the tax appeal board, in a hastily called meeting on Aug. 13, voted 4-0 to accept the inspection committee’s recommendation and keep the value at its current level.

The board’s written decision said the town determined the value using the cost approach, which among other things considers the quality of construction, the age of buildings and the price that was paid for the property. That method of valuation is used with all commercial property in Williston.

“In order to keep things consistent, that’s all we have,” said BCA member Terry Macaig. He acknowledged that using another method of valuation, as suggested by Inland, could prompt a flood of appeals by other Williston businesses.

Macaig, one of three board members who inspected the property, said the committee viewed vacant spaces at Maple Tree Place during their 30-minute tour. The inspection started at the Majestic 10 movie theater and then moved to the adjacent building housing Mexicali and other businesses.

Bill Parks, Inland Western’s vice president for property management, said he could not comment until he reviewed the written decision. Richard Wulsin, an attorney who argued the tax appeal for Inland, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Deb Beckett said the rushed meeting – public notice for the session was posted only two days in advance – was prompted by statutory deadline and looming vacations by board members.

Under state law, the board had 30 days from the July 20 appeal hearing to make a decision. Meanwhile, many members were going to be on vacation in the days leading up to the deadline, so Beckett said the meeting was quickly arranged to ensure those who inspected the property were present and the required minimum of three board members attended.

The poor turnout for last week’s meeting – the board has 18 members in all – continues a trend of recent years. An Aug. 6 story in the Observer noted that many of the Selectboard members and justices of the peace who staff the BCA rarely attend meetings.

The appeal hearing last month, despite the fact it involved property so expensive that a big devaluation could impact municipal and school budgets, drew only half of the board. By statute, only those who attended the hearing could vote on the appeal.

Beckett, who had been critical of the no-shows at previous meetings, said the low turnout was OK this time because of the short notice.

“Being able to get it in today was the best that could have been done,” she said shortly after the meeting adjourned last Thursday. “Ideally, it would have been nice to have more people there.”

Williston listers in June denied Inland’s request to reduce the appraisal, prompting the appeal.

Absent further appeal, Inland Western, a real estate investment trust affiliated with Illinois-based Inland Real Estate Group of Companies, one of the nation’s largest owners of commercial real estate, will pay $1.3 million in property taxes during the 2009-10 fiscal year. If the appraisal had been reduced to $65 million, the tax bill would have dropped by roughly $241,000.

Critics have questioned the town’s valuation of the property. Inland paid $102.3 million for Maple Tree Place four years ago. Wulsin argued at last month’s hearing that the purchase price was “somewhat irrelevant” in establishing the current value because commercial loans and potential buyers have dried up amid the economic meltdown.

Wulsin claimed Maple Tree Place was overvalued compared to other large retail centers in the state. But Macaig said that Maple Tree Place is unique and there are really no comparable properties in Vermont.

Wulsin also argued that Maple Tree Place has a significant number of vacancies, reducing income and hence value. One of its largest stores, Linens ‘n Things, went bankrupt last year, and there is other vacant retail and office space.

Wulsin said using an income-based method of valuation would reduce the appraisal to $65 million. The Board of Civil Authority’s written ruling acknowledged using that method would indeed reduce the tax value while noting the town does not calculate commercial appraisals that way.

Inland Western now has the right to further appeal, either to the state appraiser or in superior court. The appeal must be filed within 30 days of when the Board of Civil Authority’s written decision is mailed.