Skip Maine state header navigation

Agencies | Online Services | Help
Chase v. Town of Machiasport
Download as PDF
Back to Opinions page

MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT			Reporter of Decisions
Decision:	1998 ME 260
Docket:	Was-98-90	
Argued:	September 9, 1998
Decided:	December 9, 1998


Panel:WATHEN, C.J., and CLIFFORD, DANA, SAUFLEY, and CALKINS, JJ.



ROBERT CHASE et al. v. TOWN OF MACHIASPORT et al.


SAUFLEY, J.

	[¶1]  Robert and Charlotte Chase appeal from a judgment of the
Superior Court (Washington County, Alexander, J.) affirming the decision of
the Washington County Commissioners declining their request for a
property tax abatement.  The Chases argue that the Commissioners erred by
failing to independently determine the value of their property; that the
Commissioners violated the Maine Freedom of Access Act; and that the
Commissioners erred by assessing the Chases' property as shorefront, rather
than shoreview, property.  Because we agree that the Commissioners erred
in treating the property as shorefront property, we vacate the judgment.
I. Background
	[¶2]  The Chases own approximately sixty-six acres on a wooded
peninsula in Machiasport.  All but approximately twelve of those acres are
taxed as "forest land" under the Maine Tree Growth Tax Law.  36 M.R.S.A.
§§ 571-584-A (1990 & Supp. 1997).  The twelve acres that are not taxed as
"forest land" consist of abandoned fields, private roads and rights-of-way,
and a one-acre lot designated as a "house lot," which remains unimproved
except for well and septic systems.  The house lot is located at the end of a
private road nearly two miles in length, is situated about two hundred feet
from the southern shore of the peninsula, and is almost entirely surrounded
by property that is registered under the Tree Growth Tax Law.
	[¶3]  In 1996, the Town of Machiasport undertook a reassessment of
the Town's property valuations.  Following the reassessment, the Chases'
one-acre house lot was treated as "shorefront" property for tax purposes
rather than as "shoreview" property as it had previously been treated.{1}  That
reassessment translated into a significant increase in the value placed on the
land and thus into higher taxes for the Chases.{2}  The Chases appealed the
assessment to the Board of Assessors, which denied the appeal.  
	[¶4]  The Chases then filed an application for an abatement with the
Washington County Commissioners.  A hearing was held on April 3, 1997, at
which the Town's assessor testified and the Chases presented evidence in
support of their contention that the lot should not have been assessed as
shorefront property.  The Commissioners voted at their next meeting,
without discussion or further deliberation, to deny the Chases' petition for
abatement.
	[¶5]  The Chases filed a two-count complaint seeking review of
governmental action by the Superior Court pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 80B in
which they asserted that the decision by the Washington County
Commissioners and the Town of Machiasport violated the Maine Freedom of
Access Act, 1 M.R.S.A. § 401-410 (1989), and that their assessment of the
lot as shorefront property was arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and not
based on substantial evidence in the record.  The court first dismissed that
part of the Chases' claim that incorrectly identified the Commissioners as
defendants in the action, pursuant to Shawmut Inn v. Town of
Kennebunkport, 428 A.2d 384, 388-89 (Me. 1981).  After hearing, the court
affirmed the Commissioners' decision on the merits.  From the decision on
the merits, the Chases appeal.
II. Freedom of Access Act
	[¶6]  We first address the allegation that the Commissioners violated
the Freedom of Access Act.  At the beginning of the hearing, the Chairman
announced that "[f]ollowing the hearing, the Commissioners will adjourn to
consider all evidence presented at today's hearing."  At the close of the
hearing, the following colloquy took place:

Chairman:  Anyway, what we're going to do, and we have no
more questions, I would say we will take this under
consideration, and probably at our next meeting, we will render
a decision . . .

Unidentified person:  May 1st.

Mr. Bearor [representing the Chases]:  You will deliberate at that
meeting?

Chairman:  We will deliberate sometime between now and that
meeting.  See, we come in every week, and we have to sign
warrants.  Probably, at one of these times, we will get together
and take into consideration.  We will review the tape, and what
people have said.  We have opinions of our own, you know.

Mr. Bearor:  I would be most interested to hear those opinions,
rather than to just--

Unidentified person:  You will, when you get our decision.

Mr. Bearor:  I would rather see the decision made. . . . 

(Emphasis added).  At their next meeting, the Commissioners voted,
without discussion or deliberation, to deny the Chases' requested
abatement, "based on the fact that the property was assessed equitably when
compared with other similar property in the Town of Machiasport."
	[¶7]  The Chases assert that the Commissioners violated the Freedom
of Access Act by holding secret deliberations, see 1 M.R.S.A. § 403 (1989),
and by failing to provide a written record explaining the reasons for their
decision.  See 1 M.R.S.A. § 407 (1989).  All parties agree that the
proceedings of the Washington County Commissioners are "public"
proceedings as defined by the Act,{3} and thus must comply with the
requirements of the Act.  See 1 M.R.S.A. § 402(2) (Supp. 1997); id. § 403.  
	[¶8]  If the Commissioners had done what they said they would do,
that is, get together privately to review and discuss the testimony or other
evidence that was submitted, they would certainly have violated the Act. 
Deliberations outside of the public proceeding, except where explicitly
allowed by law, are directly contrary to the language and intent of the Act. 
See 1 M.R.S.A. § 401 (1989).
	[¶9]  The party alleging a violation of the Act, however, has the burden
of producing probative evidence before the Superior Court sufficient to
support a finding that the Act has been violated.  See Scola v. Town of
Sanford, 1997 ME 119, ¶ 6, 695 A.2d 1194, 1195.  The Chases did not
present any evidence to the Superior Court that the Commissioners actually
carried out their promise to deliberate in private, nor did they seek to
introduce evidence not otherwise available from the agency record, pursuant
to M.R. Civ. P. 80B(d).{4}  We will not infer a violation of the Act from a record
in which the only evidence of the threatened violation is the threat itself. 
	[¶10]  The Chases next claim that the Commissioners violated section
407 of the Act by failing to provide a written record explaining their
decision.  In Your Home, Inc. v. City of Portland, 432 A.2d 1250 (Me. 1981),
we held that the requirement that a written record accompany every
decision under the Freedom of Access Act "does not require the [agency] to
include a complete factual record with its decision, [but] does require a
statement of facts sufficient to show a rational basis for the decision."  Id. at
1257, quoted in Cook v. Lisbon School Comm., 682 A.2d 672, 677 (Me.
1996).  The Commissioners' decision was based on a finding that "the
[Chases'] property was assessed equitably when compared with other similar
property in the Town of Machiasport."  Although, as we conclude below, the
Commissioners' failure to address the just value component of the
assessment renders their findings incomplete, their findings are sufficient
to show the basis for their decision.  See Edwards v. Town of York, 597 A.2d
412, 413 (Me. 1991).  An erroneous or incomplete finding does not, by
itself, constitute a violation of section 407.
III. Burden of Proof and Standard of Review of the Assessment
	[¶11]  The Maine Constitution provides that "[a]ll taxes upon real and
personal estate, assessed by authority of this State, shall be apportioned and
assessed equally according to the just value thereof."  Me. Const. art. IX, § 8. 
Accordingly, any assessment must include two distinct factual findings: first,
the property must be assessed at its fair market value, see Quoddy Realty
Corp. v. City of Eastport, 1998 ME 14, ¶ 9, 704 A.2d 407, 409, and second,
the assessed value must be equitable, that is, the property must be assessed
at a relatively uniform rate with comparable property in the district.  See
generally McBreairty v. Commissioner of Admin. & Fin. Servs., 663 A.2d 50,
54 (Me. 1995) (discussing constitutional obligation to assess property within
a district at a uniform rate).  
	[¶12]  A taxpayer seeking an abatement from the County
Commissioners has the burden of proving that the assessed valuation is
"manifestly wrong."  City of Waterville v. Waterville Homes, Inc., 655 A.2d
365, 367 (Me. 1995) (quoting Delta Chems. v. Town of Searsport, 438 A.2d
483, 484 (Me. 1981)).  The taxpayer may meet that burden by
demonstrating that the property is substantially overvalued, that there was
unjust discrimination, or that the assessment was fraudulent, dishonest, or
illegal.  See Town of Vienna v. Kokernak, 612 A.2d 870, 872 (Me. 1990); see
also Muirgen Properties, Inc. v. Town of Boothbay, 663 A.2d 55, 58 (Me.
1995) (discussing burden and standard of review).  
	[¶13]  The Commissioners begin their independent evaluation of the
assessment from the presumption that the assessor's valuation of the
property is valid.  See Sweet v. City of Auburn, 134 Me. 28, 33 (1935) (citing
Penobscot Chemical Fibre Co. v. Town of Bradley, 99 Me. 263, 267-69
(1904)); see also Muirgen Properties, 663 A.2d at 58 (citing past cases for
the proposition that taxpayer challenging assessment has the burden of
proving valuation was "manifestly wrong" in relation to the property's just
value).  This presumption, however, does not relieve the Commissioners of
the responsibility to engage in "an independent determination of fair
market value . . . based on a consideration of all relevant evidence of just
value."  Quoddy, 1998 ME 14, ¶ 5, 704 A.2d at 408; see also South Portland
Assocs. v. City of South Portland, 550 A.2d 363, 366 (Me. 1988) (remanding
case for an independent determination of fair market value by Board of
Assessment Review).
	[¶14]  Because the Superior Court here acted in an appellate capacity,
"we review directly the Commissioners' decision for an abuse of discretion,
error of law, or findings unsupported by substantial evidence in the record." 
Town of Vienna v. Kokernak, 612 A.2d at 872.
IV. The Subject Property
	[¶15]  The Chases sought an abatement only on their one-acre house
lot.  The fact that the lot is surrounded by property registered under the
Tree Growth Tax Law did not change the responsibility of the
Commissioners in this case.  The Maine Tree Growth Tax Law provides that
"[a]reas other than forest land within any parcel of forest land shall be valued
on the basis of fair market value."  36 M.R.S.A. § 576-A (1990).  Accordingly,
it was incumbent on the Commissioners to determine whether the house
was assessed at fair market value and whether it was assessed equitably
compared to similar properties in the district.  
	[¶16]  The Commissioners' stated finding addressed only whether the
property was taxed equitably.  No finding of any kind was made regarding
the fair market value of the property.{5}  The Chases did not, however,
request findings from the Commissioners after the decision was announced. 
In the absence of requests for findings, we will assume that the
Commissioners resolved all factual issues in favor of the Town if competent
evidence exists to support such findings.  See Town of Steuben v. Lipski,
602 A.2d 1171, 1172 (Me. 1992).
	[¶17]  The evidence offered in support of the Town's valuation was
presented by the Town's assessor, Doug Guy.  The Chases argue that the
Commissioners erred as a matter of law when they accepted his
classification of the property as shorefront land even though it did not touch
the shore at any point.  They assert that the "shorefront" designation could
only have been arrived at by illegally including their forest land, which runs
between the house lot and the shore, in the house lot's valuation.{6}  They
argue that the lot was therefore substantially and illegally overvalued when
its fair market value was increased by the value of that contiguous shorefront
property.  The Town responds that the property was simply valued in the
context of its location by taking into account the nature of the surrounding
properties, considerations that are regularly used in the appraisal of real
property.

On to part 2.