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.

(Continued from page 1)

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

Enter the legal services department of the Maine Municipal Association, to which Yarmouth officials turned for advice.

“I do truly sympathize with the people who lost their homes in the explosion,” replied staff attorney Susanne Pilgrim in an email to the town. “However, as unfortunate as this situation is, Maine law is quite clear that the taxable status and value of real property in Maine is fixed as of April 1st each year. As we say in our Assessment Manual, ‘even if the ... building burns to the ground on April 2, the assessment is still based on the ownership or use and condition on April 1.’”

There are, of course, other ways to look at this financial aftershock for Houghton and his homeless neighbors.

As Woods correctly noted, more than a few municipal services were deployed responding to and dealing with the aftermath of the explosion. Moreover, if Gable Drive’s victims were to get a tax break for their no-longer-homes, what about someone who loses a home to a fire, a falling tree or some other micro-catastrophe?

Good points all. But there’s something about a massive explosion (see: Lac-Megantic, Quebec) that triggers a higher level of sympathy in people. That’s why Rep. Cooper, having reviewed the existing constitutional and statutory law, is now working on an emergency bill for the next legislative session aimed at providing a little wiggle room here.

(Maine law does allow local officials to grant “hardship” abatements for people who can’t pay their property taxes, but the consensus is that it applies to inability to pay – not inability to recognize what’s left of your home.)

“I have in mind a bill that would allow a town, but not require, the discretion to reassess property that’s been destroyed in a major catastrophe, which I define as a half-million dollars total,” Cooper said this week.

Absent such relief, she noted, “It’s not just the money. It’s salt in the wound. The town is sympathetic, but they feel like their hands are tied.”

You might think that, for the Houghtons, this year’s loss at least will be next year’s gain: If the town assesses them only for their cracked foundation next April, their property tax bill for 2014-15 will plummet, right?

Wrong. Based on what the insurance company and the builders are telling him, Houghton’s rebuilt home should be ready for occupancy right around the beginning of April. That will be just in time for a new tax bill the same as (if not more than) the current one – meaning, on paper, it will appear that nothing ever happened.

No wonder he’s ready to explode.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:


Twitter: @billnemitz

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Additional Photos

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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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