ANGELL FAMILY 2012 PROUTS NECK TRUST et als., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
TOWN OF SCARBOROUGH et al. Defendants-Appellees KENYON C. BOLTON, III, et als., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
TOWN OF SCARBOROUGH et al. Defendants-Appellants
DECISION AND JUDGMENT
A. M. Horton, Justice Business & Consumer Court
Pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 80B, the Appellants in these consolidated cases appeal the decision of the Town of Scarborough Board of Assessment Review ("Board"), denying Appellants' requests for tax abatements, following the Town's 2012 partial property tax revaluation of some, but not all, waterfront and water-influenced properties in Scarborough.
Appellants in their Joint Rule 80B Brief argue the Board's decision must be reversed for four reasons:
l) The Assessor selectively targeted waterfront property in three neighborhoods for a substantial increase in valuation, while allowing waterfront property in a similarly situated neighborhood (Piper Shores) to avoid any increase in valuation.
2) The Assessor arbitrarily exempted certain waterfront properties from the increase in valuation.
3) The Assessor gave huge tax breaks to "excess land" properties, impermissible under Maine law,
4) The Assessor's increase in valuation at Prouts Neck was based on unqualified sales.
Appellants' Joint Rule 80B Brief at 5.
For the reasons set forth below, the court affirms the Board's decision, denies the appeal, and grants judgment to the Appellees.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Appellant taxpayers own properties on or near the Atlantic Ocean, in the Prouts Neck neighborhood of Scarborough, (R. 2.) In 2012, after analyzing sales data, Scarborough Assessor Paul Lesperance increased the assessment of properties in the Prouts Neck neighborhood by 14.3 percent. (R. 647-50.) The assessed value of other properties in the Town of Scarborough decreased or remained the same. Before 2012, the last town-wide revaluation took place in 2005. (R. 588.) Appellants appealed the increased assessments on their properties to the Board, which consolidated the appeals, held hearings, and unanimously denied the appeals. (R. 6.)
II. STANDARDS OF REVIFW
1. Rule 80B
In a Rule 80B appeal, the Superior Court reviews the findings made by the municipal decision maker to determine whether those findings were based upon an "erroneous interpretation of the law" or based upon conclusions of fact not "supported by substantial evidence on the record as a whole." Bruk v. Town of Georgetown, 436 A.2d 894, 897 (Me. 1981). "Substantial evidence is evidence that a reasonable mind would accept as sufficient to support a conclusion." York v. Town of Ogunquit, 2001 ME 53, ¶ 6, 769 A.2d 172 (quoting Sproul v. Town of Boothbay Harbor, 2000 ME 30, ¶ 6, 746 A.2d 368). "The Court must affirm the decision of the [Board] unless that decision was unlawful, arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable." Driscoll v. Gheewalla, 441 A.2d 1025, 1026 (Me, 1982). Procedural unfairness is reversible error and a "decision can be 'arbitrary and capricious' if it was not the product of the requisite processes." Hopkins v. Dep't. of Human Sews., 2002 ME 129, ¶ 12, 802 A.2d 999 (citations omitted). "That the record contains evidence inconsistent with the result, or that inconsistent conclusions could be drawn from the evidence, does not render the [Board's] findings invalid if a reasonable mind might accept the relevant evidence as adequate to support the [Board's] conclusion." Town of Vienna v. Kokernak, 612 A.2d 870, 872 (Me. 1992). The party seeking to overturn the decision bears the burden of persuasion on appeal. Town of Sw. Harbor v. Harwood, 2000 ME 213, ¶ 6, 763 A.2d 135 (citing Sawyer Envtl. Recovery Facilities, Inc. v. Town of Hampden, 2000 ME 179, ¶ 13, 760 A.2d 257).
2. Municipal Tax Assessments
With respect to judicial review of municipal tax assessments specifically, a court presumes tax assessments are valid. Ram's Head Partners, LLC v. Town of Cape Elizabeth, 2003 ME 131, ¶ 9, 834 A.2d 916. "A taxpayer who seeks a tax abatement must prove that the assessed valuation is 'manifestly wrong.'" Terfloth v. Town of Scarborough, 2014- ME 57, ¶ 12, 90 A.3d 1131. A taxpayer can prove an assessment is manifestly wrong by showing:
1) the judgment of the assessor was irrational or so unreasonable in light of the circumstances that the property was substantially overvalued and an injustice resulted;
2) there was unjust discrimination; or
3) the assessment was fraudulent, dishonest, or illegal.
Yusem v. Town of Raymond, 2001 ME 61, ¶ 9, 769 A.2d 865, "The constitutional requirement [Tor tax assessments] is the seasonable attainment of a rough equality in tax treatment of similarly situated property owners." Ram's Head Partners, LLC v. Town of Cape Elizabeth, 2003 ME 131, ¶ 10, 834 A.2d 916. "Neither the constitution nor the statutes expect that a Board of Assessors could make an assessment with all values so exact that no 'expert' could disagree with them." Sears, Roebuck & Co, v. Inhabitants of City of Presque Isle, 150 Me. 181, 189, 107 A, 2d 475, 480 (1954). Appellants in this case contend that the Town's assessment was manifestly wrong in that it unjustly discriminated against owners of waterfront and water-influenced properties. As mentioned above, the court will vacate the Board's decision denying tax abatement "only if the record compels a contrary conclusion to the exclusion of any other inference." Terfloth v. Town of Scarborough, 2014 ME 57, ¶ 13, 90 A.3d 1131.
"Taxpayers can prove discrimination only if they show that the assessor's system necessarily results in unequal apportionment." Ram's Head, 2003 ME 131, ¶ 10, 834 A.2d 916 (citing City of Biddeford v. Adams, 1999 ME 49, ¶ 14, 727 A.2d 346.) "The undervaluation of one set of similarly situated properties can support a finding of unjust discrimination, even when there is no undervaluation of the general mass of property." Id. ¶ 11, On the other hand, "some specific instances here and there" of undervaluation, "[S]poradic differences in valuations, " or "mere errors of judgment on the part of the assessors" do not necessarily establish unjust discrimination. Id., (citing Kittery Elec. Light Co., 219 A.2d 728, 740 (Me. 1966); Sunday Lake Iron Co. v. Township of Wakefield, 247 U.S. 350, 353 (1918) ("[M]ere errors of judgment by officials will not support a claim of discrimination. There must be something more-something which in effect amounts to an intentional violation of the essential principle of practical uniformity.").
Because the Board concluded that the Appellants failed to meet their burden of proof, this Court will vacate the Board's decision denying tax abatement "only if the record compels a contrary conclusion to the exclusion of any other inference." Terfloth, 2014 ME 57, ¶ 13, 90 A.3d 1131.
The legal backdrop for the analysis was summarized by the Law Court in Weekley ...