October 4, 2013

Bill Nemitz: All that’s left of home: Tax bill

A Yarmouth man still faces a house’s worth of taxes after a gas explosion makes his condo uninhabitable.

What could be worse than having your house blown to smithereens while you’re sweeping the garage?

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Amory Houghton, 83, sits on the foundation of his house on Gables Drive in Yarmouth last week. His condo unit is being rebuilt after a propane explosion in June made his unit uninhabitable.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Additional Photos Below

TUNE IN

TUNE IN to NewsRadio 560 WGAN at 7:08 a.m. today to hear columnist Bill Nemitz talk about this column and other issues.

How about having to pay property taxes on the rubble.

“I thought for sure they’re not going to ding us for that,” said Amory Houghton, 83, as he surveyed the foundation of his home-that-no-longer-exists at 34 Gables Drive in Yarmouth. Shaking his head with disbelief, he added, “Oh yes they are!”

Let’s recap:

Early on the morning of June 25, while Houghton was cleaning up after the chipmunks that had gotten into his garage, a gas explosion leveled the duplex condominium next to his. The blast killed Peter Corey, 66, who lived alone in the unit that exploded and was the only casualty.

Before the insulation stopped falling like snow from the clear blue sky, six of the 14 condos in the quiet development had been rendered uninhabitable. Most of the others show scars that have yet to be repaired while the investigators and insurance adjusters go about figuring out what caused the disaster.

Houghton and his wife, Joan, took refuge first with a son, then rented an in-law apartment that unexpectedly was sold out from under them, then moved into the home of friends who are traveling abroad for four months and, when that window closes, will house-sit for other friends who spend the winter in Florida.

“We’re good until the first of May,” said Houghton, who did his darnedest to keep smiling throughout his unplanned transition from content retiree to octogenarian nomad.

Then came the tax bill.

According to the town of Yarmouth, the Houghtons’ two-bedroom, 2,100-square-foot abode was valued at $360,000 as of April 1. That translates into a 2013-14 property tax bill of $7,568, with half due on Nov. 13 and the other half due next May 7.

This for a house that two weeks ago was finally removed – in pieces – and carted off to a demolition-waste facility. Ditto for three other units, the only remnants of which are a few clapboards still wedged high into the tall pines that line the communal backyard.

“It was just an awful explosion,” said Houghton, who retired in 1991 as a senior manager with Guy Gannett Communications, which published the Portland Press Herald. “I have never seen destruction like that in my life.”

Upon receiving the first of his two $3,784 tax bills, Houghton fired off a quick email to the town assessor’s office, figuring he was entitled to at least a reduction on account of, you know, his house that’s no longer there.

He figured wrong.

“The administrative assistant to the assessor sent back a letter,” he said. “It said, ‘We’ve checked with Maine Revenue Services and the Maine Constitution and once we set the taxes, there’s no abatement. The next time we look at your property will be when we look at taxes again next April.’ ”

Houghton’s reaction?

“I was really upset,” he said. “I was upset stronger than I’m saying it.”

Off went another email to his local legislators, Sen. Dick Woodbury and Rep. Janice Cooper, Town Council Chairman Steve Woods and Town Manager Nat Tupper. Houghton’s request: Could someone, anyone, explain to him why he should have to pay a full-house’s worth of taxes on what is now a cracked foundation being held together with steel struts and injected epoxy?

“Anyone with human emotion would have the same response,” conceded Woods in an interview. “Their house is blown up – why are we sending them a tax bill?”

I feel a “but” coming on ...

“But property tax is something that is controlled and mandated by the state in terms of how it’s collected and what the criteria are,” Woods continued. “It’s still being looked into and I’m not trying to pass along the issue, but as a council we can’t act on anything that contradicts state law.”

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

This aerial photograph, taken Sept. 18, 2013, shows Gables Drive in Yarmouth where two condo lots had to be demolished after a propane explosion earlier this summer damaged them beyond repair. The condo owned by Amory Houghton stands at left, second from top. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

 


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