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Up 49 percent: The assessment for this 1,273-square-foot cottage at 17 82nd St., owned by Tom Lawrence, rose from $375,300 to $561,300 this past year. An adjacent, vacant lot owned by Lawrence had its assessment go from $10,000 to $61,000.

PLUM ISLAND — Next to his cottage at 17 82nd St., Tom Lawrence owns a 10,500-square-foot lot that the city valued at $10,000 last year.

The lot, which can’t be built on, is a rare find, he said: one of the few private beaches on the North Shore.

But this year, the third year in a three-year assessing cycle in which the city must get its numbers approved by the state, the assessed value of Lawrence’s lot jumped by 500 percent — from $10,000 to $61,000.

His cottage, a 1,273-square-foot home near the Plum Island Basin, increased in value from $375,300 to $561,300, an increase of 49 percent.

And he doesn’t know why.

“I was pretty surprised to see such a huge jump,” Lawrence said. “It just kind of seemed a little funky, you know.”

Lawrence, who owns several properties on the island, is filing three abatement requests with the city after seeing the values of those properties soar many thousands of dollars.

Lawrence had another vacant property on L Street, which he bought on speculation that he could potentially build there but has yet to do so, increased from $32,400 to $312,800. That means this year, Lawrence will pay $3,160 in taxes compared to $324 last year.

He said after getting his tax bills he did research in his neighborhood and found that many homes in the area also saw increases of 20, 30, 40 and as high as 60 percent, which he believes is a trend that proves the city’s system for assessing property is flawed.

But the assessors in Newburyport and Newbury say the value of land there is consistent to the growing desirability of property on the inland (aka Basin) side of the island.

“Why these huge increases?” he said. “My concern is that obviously there is something not right with the process in just the way they go about their assessments. You would guess that there would be some sort of cap from year to year rather than be clobbered with a 60 or 70 percent increase.

“It seems like someone maybe wasn’t doing their jobs in the years preceding” the third year in the three-year cycle, he said.

City Assessor Dan Raycroft said he wouldn’t discuss specific Newburyport properties to try to resolve problems through the press. Instead, he said, it is more professional to save such discussions for abatement discussion.

An abatement is a legal avenue for property owners to challenge the assessment of property in hopes of getting a tax bill lowered. The tax rate for this year is $10.13 for every $1,000 of assessed home value, an increase of 4 cents from the year prior.

Raycroft did say that this year they spent a lot of time reviewing sales of the property of on the Basin, including those with waterfront property and those one or two lots back from the water. He said based on those studies, the assessments were too low.

“It proved to us that our assessments for that specific location were low,” Raycroft said.

Island in high demand

Assessments for this year are based on the value of property as of Jan. 1, 2007. That means Raycroft and his assessing team used sales from that year to come up with assessed values, which in turn means the assessments do not reflect the current state of the home market.

To that end, Raycroft said it is important not to compare assessments from year to year.

“The important part is for them to look at the assessment and ask themselves does this reflect the market value of Jan. 1, 2007, or not,” he said.

Raycroft added that if something doesn’t seem right, then property owners should file for an abatement. The deadline is today at noon.

He said looking from one year to the next and seeing how much a property increased or decreased in value “is not an argument that is going to win anyone an abatement.”

Carrie Keville, administrative assessor for Newbury, also lives on Plum Island and owns a home on the Basin. She said last fiscal year was the town’s revaluation year — the third year in the three-year cycle — and they saw a jump in prices that year, though not as severe as those in Newburyport.

While she said increases of 30 percent to 70 percent “kind of seem like big jumps to me,” she said the land on the Basin is becoming more sought-after every year.

She said many of her neighbors continue to move closer to the Basin when homes become available.

Most times, she said, the homes don’t even hit the market since all a homeowner must do is spread the word and people come knocking.

“The properties on the Basin are desirable; they are highly desirable,” she said. “It really is a beautiful place to live.”

Keville said even an “old, yucky” house recently sold for $525,000, though it had to be completely redone.

Another problem Newbury faced for years was a lack of sales on the Basin on which to base values, she said.

“For a long time there were no houses on the Basin selling, so it was hard to value them,” she said.

What’s a water view worth?

In Newburyport, some of the larger increases included the home at 47 Harbor St. Evamaria Pietrzyk’s 1,071-square-foot Cape Cod jumped in value from $461,000 to $606,900, an increase of 31 percent. At 41 Harbor St., 741-square-foot home increased in value from $328,800 to $515,000, an increase of 56 percent.

There were also many increases in the 30 percent and 40 percent range with several creeping into the 60 percent ranges.

But the huge increases that Lawrence mentions seem more the exception than the rule.

Many of the homes on the island seemed to remain steady, numerous searches through the city assessors’ Web site showed. In fact, many of the homes that were not directly on the water decreased in value.

But Lawrence pointed to the homes in the South End of Newburyport along Water Street, homes with much the same view as those on Plum Island, that often had a decrease in value during the most recent assessment.

At 282 Water St., for example, a 1,692-square-foot Cape Cod with views of the water decreased in value from $731,800 to $575,700. Just down the street, at 278 Water St., a 2,491-square-foot home decreased in value from $840,800 to $650,300.

Lawrence argues that it is clear something in the city’s assessing system is not working properly when there are decreases like this on Water Street and increases on Harbor Street.

“There are a gazillion examples that something isn’t working,” Lawrence said. “There is no real logic.

“I think they take a closer look during certification years. In the first and second years, they still should be making market adjustments. When you see jumps like this, it probably means the process wasn’t working before. But there is no excuse for having these huge jumps.

“Who is in charge down there for crying out loud?”

Neighborhoods differ

This year, assessment values were difficult to categorize since certain neighborhoods went up and certain neighborhoods went down. Raycroft said there are numerous reasons for the varying assessment trends.

The increases and decreases in the market can be seen using the examples of Mayor John Moak’s house compared to Sheriff Frank Cousins’ property just blocks away.

The value of the mayor’s property on Marlboro Street — a 1,857-square-foot Colonial — went to $569,100 from $547,600, an increase of $21,500 or 4 percent. Cousins’ home on Bromfield Street — a 2,143-square-foot antique — dropped to $572,500 from $605,700, a decrease of 5 percent.

Lawrence said those he feels most bad for are the people in his neighborhood who own small summer cottages and shacks. Often, he said, these people are retired or elderly and live on fixed incomes and cannot pay for and plan for huge increases in their property tax bills.

“They get whacked with these huge increases,” he said. “How do you plan for almost doubling your tax bill?”

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