, Newburyport, MA

September 26, 2013

Salisbury says state is lowballing beach's value


---- — SALISBURY — Ask a real estate agent what he or she would expect to pay for 390 acres of ocean and riverfront land and the answer would probably be a lot more than $5 million.

But $5 million is the value the state Department of Revenue is placing on all 1,263 acres of state-owned land in Salisbury, which includes the roughly 390 acres that make up Salisbury Beach State Reservation. This new assessed value of state land is down about 80 percent from the previous value of $27.4 million value obtained in 2010 through a settlement.

This is more than a case of pride. The assessed value of state-owned land relates directly to the amount the state pays Salisbury in payments in lieu of taxes, or PILOT funds, for years to come. The precipitous drop in value will take a healthy chunk out of the town’s budget every year, Salisbury Chief Assessor Cheryl Gorniewicz told selectmen recently, dropping the state’s cash payment from the current $240,000 down to $50,000.

This is far from the first time the state has attempted to slash the value of the acreage it owns in Salisbury. The last time valuation came round, in 2009, it attempted to reduce the value of its land in Salisbury by 64 percent, from $27.4 million down to $9.8 million. Salisbury’s appeal to the Appellate Tax Board resulted in a settlement right before the scheduled trial, resulting in an agreed upon value of $27,375,000 for the then 1,188 acres of land.

Now, four years later as the valuation is done anew, the problem’s back, and the town is again preparing its appeal before the Tax Board. With a trial scheduled for Dec. 18, unless a settlement can be reached, it’s the same old story, but one that’s wearing thin.

“Since 1985 Salisbury has had to appeal the state’s values,” Gorniewicz said. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money. Wouldn’t you think they could work things out better than this.”

After listening to Gorniewicz discuss the valuation drop of 80 percent to $5 million, Selectman Freeman Condon was amazed.

“Doesn’t that seem irrational?” he asked Gorniewicz, who nodded her agreement.

She told Condon she wanted to bring the Department of Revenue an aerial photograph of Salisbury Beach State Reservation, along with the total revenue the state takes in every year from the well-frequented state park. Although the state makes a lucrative income from the reservation, Corniewicz said, Salisbury bears most of the financial burden in traffic, police, fire and medical services it provides due to the huge influx of people the state park brings to town.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation owns and runs the reservation, and according spokesman Bill Hickey, the state doesn’t actually keep track of attendance at the parks. But during the last fiscal year, Salisbury Beach State Reservation was the highest earning of DCR’s four ocean beach parks that charge fees for entry. Some parks, like Revere Beach, do not charge, Hickey said.

In fiscal 2013, Salisbury took in a total of $526,162 in parking, camping and permit fees, with parking responsible for most of that with $478,066. The state also has a $2 surcharge on both camping and parking at Salisbury, which goes into a separate Salisbury Beach Preservation Trust Fund, to help with preserving the beach’s natural resources.

The other four state reservations are Horseneck Beach with $460,705 in revenues, Nantasket Beach, $234,940, and Scusset Beach, $216,610.

The slash in value in Salisbury is even more confusing, Gorniewicz said, when comparing the value DOR places on Maudslay State Park in Newburyport.

“Maudslay State Park— which isn’t oceanfront but about the same size — is valued at $20 million,” Gorniewicz said.

Gorniewicz said what leads to this problem every four years is the rationale the state uses to value land, which they classify in only three categories: prime, excess or unbuildable.

The most valuable are prime lots, where Gorniewicz places reservation oceanfront land, the least valuable is unbuildable, where the state places the lots.

“In Salisbury, a quarter-acre oceanfront lot is assessed at about $730,000,” Gorniewicz said. “That’s just the land according to the market.”

However, the state does not consider the beach’s oceanfront lots as prime, she said. To qualify as prime for the state purposes, a lot must conform to local zoning, be considered readily developable, and it cannot be subject to the Wetlands Protection Act or any special permitting, Gorniewicz said.

Because land at the beach requires owners to go before the Conservation Commission before building, Gorniewicz said, DOR considers that special permitting and no longer considers them prime lots, something Gorniewicz vehemently disputes. There are plenty of homes in town built on land that’s subject to the Wetlands Act and Conservation Commission review, she said, and she doesn’t consider those lots subject to “special permitting,” or as unbuildable.

But the state’s theory in Salisbury is dropping the value of reservation land to $15,000 an acre, or $3,750 per quarter-acre lot that’s valued at almost three-quarters of a million on the real estate market, she said.

In addition, Gorniewicz said, the state is far from consistent in applying its reasoning from community to community. She cites lots of state land across from the Ipswich River in Ipswich that DOR classifies as prime lots, even though they’re subject to the Wetlands Protection Act and Conservation Commission review.

“And they don’t have access to sewer,” she added. “Salisbury Beach has sewer.”

Selectmen were pleased to hear the town will fight for its proper due, and Selectman Fred Knowles had an interesting suggestion for Gorniewicz when she meets with the state regulators over the issue.

“Ask them if they’ll sell (Salisbury Beach State Reservation) back to us for $5 million,” Knowles said.

Gorniewicz said she’d be happy to.