This article first appeared in the July 17, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.
By Curt Peterson
BARNARD — At its July 9 meeting, town Board of Abatement officials were presented with an unusual and challenging problem: a 10-acre lot exists on the town’s grand list but nowhere else, giving new meaning to the term “empty lot.”
Barnard Selectboard member Rock Webster appeared before the Board of Abatement last Wednesday seeking resolution on the non-existent lot — asking the town to forgive property taxes and remove the lot from the grand list.
In 2007, Webster and fellow Barnard Selectboard member Tim Johnson purchased the lot in a tax sale for $1,223 — the amount of delinquent taxes at that time. Webster and Johnson eventually discovered their dilemma; while there is a deed in their name on the grand list, the town survey indicates the land the deed represents does not exist.
“We paid the taxes until we discovered we couldn’t do anything with land that just isn’t there,” said Webster to the board.
Town Clerk Dianne Rainey said the Board of Abatement forgave the overdue taxes for the past two years when the woeful owners explained their situation. The non-existent lot is assessed for a value of $28,000.
Lister Richard Lancaster plans to research the deeds in the next few weeks, but he’s not sure when the mistake occurred.
No one has any idea how the land duplication occurred, according to Barnard Selectboard chair Tom Morse.
“There is no indication anything malicious was intended by anyone,” Morse said.
Morse did say the lot was once part of a huge, more-than-thousand-acre parcel owned by logger Pete Rota.
“Uneducated, when (Rota) began to sell off some of the land, his descriptions of metes and bounds were inaccurate and difficult to understand. Later surveys revealed numerous discrepancies, including on my own property, which was originally part of the same tract,” Morse said.
The town survey shows that the 10 acres are a legal part of land owned by Darlene Hazelton, who now lives in North Bennington. Hazelton bought what she thought was 73.9 acres at a foreclosure auction in the 1960s. David and Janet Weiner, who had purchased her property from Rota, she says, were the previous owners, but title had been taken by their mortgagee—Green Mountain Bank.
In the late 1990s, David Weiner approached Hazelton.
“He said he had another 10-acre Rota parcel next to mine that he had bought from Lawrence Rhoades, and he’d sell it to me for half what it was worth,” Hazelton said. “But he couldn’t point out to me exactly where it was, so I got a lawyer. He advised me to have my property surveyed, which would show where the Weiner lot was. You know the answer — it was nowhere. In fact, the 10 acres I bought at the auction included the 10 acres Weiner was trying to sell me. I had actually legally bought 83.9 acres.”
Both parties have paid taxes on the same 10 acres, but when the Weiners realized the lot probably did not exist, they stopped paying the real estate taxes.
A few years later, Webster and Johnson bought the property for future development.
Webster said that, in an attempt to rid themselves of the imaginary lot and its accompanying tax liabilities, he and Johnson had offered to give the abutting Hazelton a quitclaim deed.
“She wouldn’t accept it,” Webster said. “She was afraid the grand list would add the imaginary 10 acres to their holdings, and they would become the ones paying taxes on non-existent land.”
At the July 9 meeting, Morse offered a motion that any delinquent taxes be abated, and that the listers research and execute whatever has to be done to remove the deed from the grand list.
Lancaster says it’s the state that will decide on the site’s future.
“Tax rolls are promulgated from the Grand List, which relies on deed records and not on the town survey, so it will remain a taxable piece of land every year until the deed is formally and legally expunged,” Lancaster said.
At the regular Selectboard meeting a resident questioned proposed expansion of the 30 mph speed limit on Rte. 12 south to Bennett Road to improve safety for children walking to school. He says big trucks slowing down coming into town, or speeding up on the way out would, as a result, be right in front of his house and the increased noise would be unbearable. Morse offered to review the situation with the Vermont Agency of Transportation to discuss alternatives.
Selectmen will review the policy of charging or not charging non-profits for use of the Town Hall for events. When users serve alcohol on the premises, the town attorney has advised, they should be required to provide a certificate naming the town as a co-insured on their liability insurance coverages. Webster asked to table the issue until he could research the cost impact on town residents who want to use the hall for a family event.
Much of the discussion involved taxes. The total grand list evaluation for Barnard is $2,873,812.40, and the total residents’ tax rate next year will be $20.44 per $1,000 of assessed value, non-residents’ $19.30.
“People don’t realize that it isn’t the cost of running the town that comprises most of their taxes,” Morse said. “The town’s portion of the tax rate is just seventeen percent; the rest of it is money that goes to the state.”
Morse also announced that notices and Selectboard meeting agendas will be posted on the door to the town clerk’s office and on Barnard’s listserve email, as required by Vermont’s new open meeting law.