Court to hear shopping centers tax appeal (9/24/09)

Maple Tree Place owner wants value reduced by $15 million

Sept. 24, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The corporate owner of Maple Tree Place continues to dispute the tax value of Williston’s highest-priced property.

Inland Western filed an appeal earlier this month in Chittenden Superior Court. As of Monday, a hearing date had not been scheduled.

The appeal follows a decision last month by the Williston Board of Civil Authority to reject the company’s claim that the retail center is worth less than the town’s $80.9 million valuation.

Inland has argued that falling commercial property values should prompt a lower appraisal. An attorney for the company said during the Board of Civil Authority hearing that Maple Tree Place was worth $65 million.

But the board voted unanimously to deny Inland’s appeal, which could have reduced its annual tax bill by more than $200,000.

In its written ruling, the board said the town determined the value using the cost approach, which considers the quality of construction, the age and size of buildings and other factors.

That method of valuation is used with all commercial property in Williston. Town officials have noted that using another method for Maple Tree Place could prompt tax appeals from many companies in Williston.

“I don’t see how you can change it,” said Herb Goodrich, chairman of the Board of Civil Authority. “It’s what we do for the rest of the businesses.”

Bill Parks, Inland Western’s vice president for property management, did not return telephone messages. Robert Gensburg, the St. Johnsbury attorney who filed the court appeal for Inland, did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment.

Throughout the appeal process, which included a review by the Board of Listers and the Board of Civil Authority hearing, Inland has argued that the slumping real estate market and numerous vacancies make the property worth much less than the town’s appraised value.

That claim was greeted with skepticism from some Board of Civil Authority members, who noted that Inland paid $102.3 million when it bought Maple Tree Place in 2005. Inland’s attorney argued that the number is no longer relevant because the recession has driven down prices for commercial real estate.

Goodrich said the purchase price is an inescapable fact sure to be raised during the court hearing.

Maple Tree Place is by far the highest-valued property in Williston. IBM’s facility on Redmond Road is the next most expensive property, with an appraised value of $31.6 million.

Inland Western is a real estate investment trust affiliated with Illinois-based Inland Real Estate Group of Companies, which owns one of the nation’s largest portfolios of commercial real estate.

Absent a successful appeal, Inland Western will pay $1.3 million in local property taxes during the 2009-2010 fiscal year. If the appraisal was reduced to $65 million, the company’s tax bill would fall by about $241,000.

A devaluation would have a relatively minor impact on Williston’s $7.6 million municipal budget. Town Manager Rick McGuire said it would reduce revenue by about $30,000.

A ruling in Inland’s favor would have no effect on local school funding or education taxes, said Bob Mason, chief operations officer with the Chittenden South Supervisory Union.

Property taxes earmarked for education go into a statewide fund, then are disbursed using a complex formula, Mason said. Any revenue reduction would therefore be spread out among all school districts in Vermont.