Q: I am trying to challenge my property taxes without going through a big expense. I have 14.5 acres. Six acres are considered unbuildable. Of the remaining 8.5 acres, all are considered buildable. I don’t understand how they can be buildable when there is no access or frontage to any of this property, Is there any type of definition as to what makes land unbuildable? Basically, it’s all ledge and goes uphill. Thank you for any help you can give me. — Lorraine C.
A: I doubt that you will find a universal definition of “unbuildable” other than the obvious meaning. It is not a precise legal term, but more of an opinion. Your challenge is to change the tax assessor’s opinion of your property.
To a tax assessor, “unbuildable” typically means that there is no apparent legal way to build on a lot due to regulatory issues – primarily zoning. For example, the lot may be too small for a legal home or commercial building under current zoning. Or a site may fail to perc and not qualify for an alternative septic system. If deemed unbuildable, the assessment may drop dramatically.
In some cases, a lot is unbuildable in its current condition, but could be developed with a variance, special permit, easement, or other legal change that would allow it to conform with zoning and building regulations.
In other cases, the land is difficult and expensive to build on, but it’s not impossible. Ledge may need blasting, wet areas need draining (if allowed by law), problem soils need remediation, or other expensive improvements would be needed to build.
Sometimes it is clear-cut that a lot can never be built on. More often, it’s a gray area. The lot is deemed “unbuildable” until someone comes along and figures out a legal work-around that lets them build. I’ve seen this happen a number of times.
In your case, the key is to convince the town, and in particular the tax assessor, that your lot is unbuildable, or that building would be prohibitively expensive. To bolster your case, you would need to show that your lot does not conform to local zoning or building regulations and cannot reasonably be brought into compliance.
A steep site with a lot of ledge is buildable, but costly to develop. However, a lack of frontage and road access could make a lot unbuildable without obtaining an easement or right-of-way that may be difficult or impossible to obtain. Even if the lot is technically buildable, the legal and practical hurdles might be so high that the land has little value.
A surveyor could help you establish the status of the property with respect to zoning regulations and help determine whether the town has an accurate record of your property. Or you can do the research this yourself if you have the time and interest. But the more objective information you can bring to the tax assessor, the better your chance of getting a reduction. In most cases, assessors look at comparable pieces of real estate to gauge value, but finding suitable “comps” for this property might be difficult.
Every municipality has its own rules, but most allow you to request a review of your assessment and a more formal appeal process if the review is not successful. Both types of review have deadlines to follow. And if enough money is at stake, you can always get help from a lawyer.
It’s definitely worth the effort to request a review. The two times I contested a home tax appraisal, the value was reduced. In some cases, there are errors of measurement or other objective mistakes. Other times, you can simply provide comps that show that your property value is incorrect. Assessors have a lot of properties to appraise in a short period of time, so mistakes do happen and, at least in my case, the assessor was willing to correct the error.
Best of luck! — Steve Bliss, Editor, BuildingAdvisor.com
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