Residents plan mass appeal to state

Condo owners join in assessment fight

March 17, 2007|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,sun reporter

Jack Ritter wasn't trying to stir up a neighborhood-wide protest. He just wanted to appeal his property assessment.

But word got around, and people kept asking: Can I join in?

Now the owners of 19 homes in his Reisterstown neighborhood - a third of the Glyndon Trace condominiums - are appealing as a group. It's a rare but perfectly acceptable way to argue for lower property assessments, the state says.

"It seems like it happened spontaneously," said Ritter, 79, a telephone company retiree whose assessment rose more than 70 percent. "The next thing I knew, I had all these people. ... By the time I had seven or eight, I figured, what the heck. ... "

The number of Baltimore-area property owners appealing their assessments is up 30 percent since 2001, when the housing boom began pushing values skyward. The state Department of Assessments and Taxation has received 16,000 appeals from the metropolitan area this year, or one for every 18 reassessed properties.

Individual homes are reassessed every three years; the state evaluates a third of each jurisdiction annually. By accident of market forces, the timing of this new cycle virtually ensured taxpayer indignation - even with caps that shield most homeowners from tax-bill shock.

Assessors needed to account for sharp price gains in the previous three years. But by the time notices arrived in metro-area mailboxes in December with average increases of 63 percent, the region's housing market had been slumping for months.

The sales data that assessors relied upon spanned both boom and bust.

State assessment officials have said they were keenly aware of the market change and took it into account, but Glyndon Trace residents think they have a housing-slump case.

"Prices have come down," said Claire Shutt, a Realtor for 29 years who lives in one of the condos.

She paid $300,000 in August 2005 for her newly constructed unit, which is only slightly larger than the one below her that sold for $250,000 last fall.

The new assessments range from $284,000 to $299,000, said Ritter. One condo is on the market for its assessed value - $298,000 - and "it's been sitting there for four months," he said.

To prepare for their appeal next month, residents have sifted through assessment notices to look for patterns and inconsistencies, researched recent sales, compiled a list of neighborhood problems that could hurt values and decided who will testify at the hearing.

Of the thousands who appeal their assessments, few ever band together, the state said. "That is the exception," said Wilton P. Stansbury Jr., state supervisor of assessments.

When it does happen, it's usually among neighboring condominium owners, he said. With similar or identical units, those owners are the most likely to have identical points to make at their appeals.

Ronald C. Tolson, the state's supervisor of assessments for Baltimore County, said the group approach can be more efficient for everyone involved. The designated speakers are the only ones who have to show up for the appeal, and the state doesn't need to set up a separate hearing for every homeowner.

Tolson's one word of caution: Plan ahead about who will say what, "because you can't have 30 people going in different directions," he said.

Glyndon Trace got the message. Ritter, Shutt and Shutt's husband, Thom, president of the condo association, will speak for the group at their appeal.

The condos have tended to draw an older crowd. Many residents are on fixed incomes.

Marcia C. Udell, 73, lives in Ritter's building and asked to join in when he mentioned he was appealing.

She said she's living on Social Security payments and is frustrated that her expenses are going up - groceries, gas, electricity. Her tax assessment is the only thing she can fight.

"We're being hit hard," she said.

Residents would have to win a huge reduction to see an immediate impact on their tax bills, however.

Baltimore County's homestead credit limits the amount of assessment increases that can be taxed at 4 percent annually, which this year applies to homeowners who bought before last July. So, even though their assessments skyrocketed, Glyndon Trace residents who qualify for the cap will get taxed on a much smaller 12 percent increase over the next three years.

The homestead credit is an important reason why the share of appeals, though rising, remains comparatively low.

During the region's last real estate boom, in the 1980s, the annual cap was 15 percent.

As the effects of higher sales prices filtered into tax bills, appeals surged to one in 10 assessment notices. In 1990, the state legislature reset the cap to 10 percent and allowed local governments to further lower their limits.

Ritter said he thinks an appeal is still worth the time. He figures a lower assessment now could translate into a lower reassessment next time around.

For Mike Blank, 72, a retired federal employee, it's about the principle of the thing.

His assessment rose almost 90 percent.

He appealed once on his old house, many years ago. When his assessment wasn't changed, he decided to never bother again. Then Ritter came calling.

This time, Blank said, could be different.

"As an individual, you can't fight City Hall," he said. "But maybe as a group we can."

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