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Plante v. Town of Brunswick

Superior Court of Maine, Cumberland

July 23, 2019

JAY PLANTE, et al., Petitioners
v.
TOWN OF BRUNSWICK, Respondents

          ORDER AND DECISION

          Nancy Mills Justice

         Before the court is petitioners Jay Plante, Marcia Harrington, Dan Morgenstern, Moriah Moser, Averil Fessenden, Rol Fessenden, Chris McCarthy, Kari McCarthy, Paul Wood, Cindy Wood, Ann Ruthsdottir, and Anne Richards's Rule 80B appeal of respondent Town of Brunswick's October 29, 2018 decision. Respondent Town's Board of Assessment Review affirmed the respondent Town's Tax Assessor's valuation of petitioners' solar panel systems for the 2017 tax year. For the following reasons, respondent Town of Brunswick's Board of Assessment Review's decision is affirmed.

         I. Factual Background

         Petitioners are residents and property owners in Brunswick, Maine. (R. Tab 32.) All petitioners own either a solar photovoltaic (PV) or a solar thermal system. (R. Tab 32.) Respondent Town of Brunswick is a municipality located in Cumberland County, Maine.

         For the 2017 tax year, respondent Town underwent a town-wide revaluation of all real property. Respondent Town hired KRT Appraisal to conduct the revaluation. (R. Tab 16.) Petitioners' properties were assessed with extra value due to their installation of residential solar panel systems. (R. Tab 9.) Each solar panel system unit (panel) was assessed by respondent Town's Tax Assessor, Cathleen Jamison, with a value of $500. (R. Tab 9.)

         Petitioners requested an abatement from Assessor Jamison and claimed that the solar panel systems were overvalued. (R. Tabs 4, 7.) On May 18, 2018, assessor Jamison sent letters to petitioners. (R. Tab 8.) In these letters, Assessor Jamison informed petitioners that solar panel systems are not exempt from taxation by state law and must be assessed for taxation. (R. Tab 8.) Assessor Jamison states that she used the "income approach" in order to assess the value of the solar panel systems because the other two methods, the "cost approach" and the "sales comparison approach," were not ideal to assess the solar panel systems' value. (R. Tab 8.) Assessor Jamison adjusted the value of each solar panel from $500 to $200 per panel. (R. Tab 8.)

         On July 9, 2018, petitioners appealed Assessor Jamison's valuation of their solar panel systems to respondent Town's Board of Assessment Review. (R. Tab 3.) Petitioners claimed that Assessor Jamison's valuation methods did not comport with Maine's constitutional requirements. (R. Tab 3 3-6.) On October 11, 2018, respondent Town's Board of Assessment Review met to address petitioners' appeal. (R. Tab 1.) During the 2.5-hour hearing, the Board heard testimony from: petitioners' attorney Brian Marshall; petitioners Jay Plante, Marcia Harrington, and Ann Ruthsdottir; Fortunat Mueller of Re Vision Energy; Mike Wilson, the chair of the Recycling and Sustainability Committee; respondent Town's Attorney Stephen Langsdorf; and respondent Town's current Assessor Justin Hennessey.[1] (R. Tab 2; Tr.) At the' hearing, Assessor Justin Hennessey testified that former Assessor Jamison used a program called the "PV tool" to help calculate an average value for solar panel system units in order to assist in a reasonable mass appraisal.[2] (R. Tab 2; Tr. 26.)

         The four Board members present at the meeting voted unanimously to deny the petitioners' appeal. (R. Tab 12.) The Board found no discrimination or illegality with the solar panel system assessments and that petitioners failed to present any evidence or testimony to demonstrate that their assessments were unjust or excessive. (R. Tab 11-2.)

         II. Procedural History

         Petitioners filed a complaint for appeal of government action pursuant to Rule 80B on November 15, 2018. M.R. Civ. P. 80B. In the complaint, petitioners allege (1) respondent Town's solar panel system assessment was not based on any acceptable assessment methodology, (Compl. ¶ 40); (2) respondent Town's solar panel system assessment unfairly discriminates among solar panel system owners by applying a uniform assessment rate, (Compl.¶ 41); (3) respondent Town's solar panel system assessment unfairly discriminates against solar panel system owners compared to property owners who have made home energy investments other than solar panel systems, (Compl.¶ 42); and (4) the Board's decision to uphold the tax is an error of law, an abuse of discretion, and is not based on substantial evidence. (Compl.¶ 43.) In their brief, petitioners argue that the solar tax assessment is not supported by any competent assessment method and unfairly discriminates against solar owners as a class and between solar owners who own solar panels with widely varying technological capabilities. (Pets.1 Br. 1-2.)

         Petitioners filed their brief in support of their Rule 80B on December 20, 2018. Respondent Town filed its brief on January 22, 2019. Petitioners filed a reply brief on February 5, 2019.

         Discussion

         III. Standard of Review

         The court reviews Board decisions for errors of law, abuse of discretion, or findings not supported by substantial evidence in the record. Aydelott v. City of Portland, 2010 ME 25, ¶10, 990 A.2d 1024 (quotation omitted). "Substantial evidence exists when a reasonable mind would rely on that evidence as sufficient support for a conclusion; the possibility of drawing two inconsistent conclusions does not render the evidence insubstantial." Adelman v. Town of Baldwin,2000 ME 91, ¶ 12, 750 A.2d 577. When a Board concludes that petitioner has failed to meet the burden to prove that an abatement was merited, the court "will vacate the Board's decision only if the record compels a contrary ...


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