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Goldstein v. Town of Georgetown
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MAINE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT					Reporter of Decisions
Decision:	1998 ME 261
Docket:	Sag-98-100
Submitted
On Briefs:	November 20, 1998
Decided:	December 9, 1998


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




JONATHAN P. GOLDSTEIN v. TOWN OF GEORGETOWN

ALEXANDER, J.

	[¶1]  Jonathan P. Goldstein appeals from the judgment entered in
the Superior Court (Sagadahoc County, Calkins, J.), following a bench trial,
finding that the Town of Georgetown did not err in concluding that the
misclassification of Goldstein's property constituted a valuation error, and
not an "illegality, error or irregularity in assessment," pursuant to 36
M.R.S.A. § 841(1) (Supp. 1997),{1} and denying Goldstein's abatement request
for the years 1994/95 and 1995/96.   Goldstein argues that the Town should
have granted his abatement for the relevant years because the
misclassification of his property resulted from an "illegality, error or
irregularity in assessment," and not from a valuation error.  Because we
conclude that the Superior Court correctly construed section 841(1), we
affirm. 
Case History
	[¶2]  Goldstein owns property overlooking Robinhood Cove in
Georgetown.  Although classified as waterfront property,{2} Goldstein's
property was in fact separated from the water by a small strip of land.  On
October 23, 1996, Goldstein applied to the Town of Georgetown for a
property tax abatement on this property for the tax years 1996/97, 1995/96
and 1994/95.{3}  The Town granted Goldstein an abatement of his 1996/97
valuation in the amount of $58,000.
	[¶3]  Goldstein appealed the Town's decision to the Sagadahoc
County Commissioners.  The Commissioners denied his appeal agreeing with
the Town that the abatement requests for 1995/96 and 1994/95 were
untimely under 36 M.R.S.A. § 841(1) (Supp. 1997) because the
misclassification was a valuation error.
	[¶4]  Goldstein filed a timely Petition for Judicial Review of
Governmental Action in the Superior Court.  Following oral argument, the
Superior Court granted judgment to the Town of Georgetown, finding that
the misclassification was an "error in valuation" that could be corrected only
upon application made within 185 days.  This appeal followed.
Discussion
	[¶5]  When the Superior Court, acting as an intermediate appellate
court, reviews a decision of the County Commissioners, this Court reviews
the Commissioners' decision directly for an abuse of discretion, error of law,
or findings unsupported by substantial evidence in the record.  IBM Credit
Corp. v. City of Bath, 665 A.2d 663, 664 (Me. 1995). 
 	[¶6]  Section 841 does not define what constitutes an "error in the
valuation of property."  36 M.R.S.A. § 841(1) (Supp. 1997).  When the Court
construes a statute, it seeks to give effect to legislative intent by examining
the plain meaning of the statutory language.  Estate of Whittier, 681 A.2d 1,
2 (Me. 1996).
	[¶7]  A misclassification of property which results in an assessment
that is too much or too little, compared to what it should be, is a classic
error in valuation.  Such errors may occur with some frequency in small
towns with many properties served by part-time assessors who, while
honest and hardworking, are essentially volunteers in their duties.  In such
circumstances, mistakes will be made, particularly in situations where the
mistake in valuation would not be obvious from observation.  For that reason,
section 841 provides a mechanism for correction of errors in valuation.  
This process recognizes that, in such "error in valuation" circumstances,
the taxpayer may be in a better position to have the essential information to
point out the error.  Accordingly, the burden is placed upon the taxpayer to
justify the abatement.  However, in "error in valuation" circumstances, the
time for objection is limited to 185 days so that the Town's financial
commitments, beyond individual fiscal years, are not unduly disrupted by
stale claims for abatement.
	[¶8]  Errors in calculating the value of the property in no way affect
the taxability of the property or indicate any impropriety in the manner in
which the property was assessed.  The available cases considering section
841 indicate that those taxing events that are construed to be an "illegality,
error, or irregularity in assessment" are very different legal events.  Thus, in
Town of East Millinocket v. Town of Medway, 486 A.2d 739 (Me. 1985), we
ruled that such an illegality had occurred in a situation where a town had
assessed taxes upon a property that should have been tax-exempt.  In that
case, the issue was total illegality of the tax, not a value miscalculation.
	[¶9]  In Eastport Water Co. v. City of Eastport, 288 A.2d 718 (Me.
1972), we allowed recovery where, after the assessors developed a valuation, 
a clerical mistake, improperly placing a decimal point, resulted in
overtaxation of the property.  Again, the issue was not the amount of the
valuation, but a clerical mistake applied to the valuation number resulting in
improper taxation in light of the valuation of the property originally
determined by the assessors.
	[¶10]  By contrast, the error here is a mistake in application of the
methods used to reach a valuation, "an error in valuation of property" to
which the 185-day limit on applications for abatement in section 841(1)
applies.  To construe section 841(1) otherwise and hold that every mistake
in setting a value is an illegality would essentially write the 185-day limit out
of the law and open a wide range of municipal valuation determinations to
challenge long after the fiscal years in which the assessed and collected
taxes had been committed.
	The entry is:
			Judgment affirmed.

For the Appellant: Jonathan Goldstein HC 33 Box 1445 Knobble Rd. Georgetown, Maine 04548 Attorney for the Appellee: Carl W. Stinson, Esq. Stinson, Lupton & Gabree, P.A. 280 Front St. Bath, Maine 04530
FOOTNOTES******************************** {1} 36 M.R.S.A. § 841(1) (Supp. 1997) provides: The assessors, either upon written application filed within 185 days from commitment stating the grounds for an abatement or on their own initiative within one year from commitment, may make such reasonable abatement as they consider proper to correct any illegality, error or irregularity in assessment, provided that the taxpayer has complied with section 706. The municipal officers, either upon written application filed after one but within 3 years from commitment . . . may make such reasonable abatement as they consider proper to correct any illegality, error or irregularity in assessment, provided that the taxpayer has complied with section 706. The municipal officers may not grant an abatement to correct an error in valuation of property. {2} In the terminology of the tax assessment, Goldstein's property was classified as "Knubble" or waterfront property, while nonwaterfront property in the area was classified as "Knubble Road" property. {3} The selectmen in the Town of Georgetown are the municipal officers and the assessors. See 30-A M.R.S.A. § 2001(10)(A)(1996); 36 M.R.S.A. § 703 (Supp. 1997).