ORFORD, N.H. – The one-room cabin David Bischoff built in a cow pasture three years ago has no electricity, no running water, no phone service and no driveway. What it does have is a wide-open view of nearby hills and distant mountains — which makes it seven times more valuable than if it had no view, according to the latest townwide property assessment. He expects his property taxes to shoot up accordingly.
Bischoff and other Orford residents bitterly call that a "view tax," (search) and they are leading a revolt against it that has gained support in many rural towns in New Hampshire (search).
State officials say there is no such thing as a "view tax" — it is a "view factor," and it has always been a part of property assessments. The only change is that views have become so valuable in some towns that assessors are giving them a separate line on appraisal records.
The change has stirred passions in Orford, a town of 1,040 that overlooks the Connecticut River and has views of neighboring Vermont and the White Mountains (search).
One big reason the reassessment has alarmed townspeople in Orford and beyond is that housing prices — and consequently property taxes — are shooting up in New England because of an influx of vacation-home buyers and retirees willing to pay top dollar for beautiful views.
The Orford Board of Selectmen, of which Bischoff is chairman, voted in September to set aside the revaluation by Avitar Associates of New England (search) until the Legislature comes up with objective standards for valuing views.
Critics complain, for example, that some town assessors assign fixed dollar values to certain types of views, while others multiply a home's base value by a "view factor."
Avitar president Gary Roberge acknowledged that assessing views is partly subjective and said that is why there is an appeals process. But he said Orford's revaluation was sound overall. "There's been a huge change in property values in this area," he said.
At a packed legislative hearing, Orford timberland owner Tom Thomson warned that unless the state acts, rising property taxes will force family farmers to sell to developers, permanently altering New Hampshire's rural character.
"We're going to drive the people off the land who have been living on it and working it for generations," Thomson said. "It's going to destroy our No. 1 industry: tourism."
Guy Petell, director of property appraisals for the state, is sympathetic. But real estate ads and sales prove that properties with views fetch a premium, and it would be unfair to homeowners without views to ignore that, Petell said.
"A piece of land on a side of a hill that overlooks a 50-mile or 100-mile radius is going to be worth more than the same piece of land overlooking an industrial complex or a landfill," he said.
In Bischoff's case, the view added $140,000 to his property's underlying value of $22,900. As a result, he expects his property taxes to jump from less than $500 last year to more than $3,000 this year.
Home appraisals, whether in New Hampshire, Texas or California, are supposed to reflect a property's market value. Because the view and other aesthetic considerations affect market value, it is standard practice in the industry to take them into account.
Wayne Trout, president of the International Association of Assessing Officials, said it is unusual for assessors to assign a specific dollar value to the view. But he said the methods do not really matter as long as total assessed value accurately represents market value.
Trout, the assessor for Norfolk, Va., said the value of waterfront and water-view homes there is rising rapidly, leading to complaints similar to those in New Hampshire.
In Nevada, state law requires assessors to consider views, and Washoe County assessor Bob McGowan said ballooning property values on Lake Tahoe (search) have contributed to protests against his view-ranking system. The state helped ease the pain this year by capping annual property tax increases on primary residences at 3 percent, an approach adopted years ago by voter initiative in Massachusetts and California.
New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor said the underlying problem is the "perversity" of the state's heavy reliance on property taxes. The state has no general income or sales tax, and the resulting high property taxes are hardest on those who are land-rich but income-poor.
Retired engineer John Chandler objected when a revaluation doubled the value of his property in Hill because of its view of the White Mountains in the distance. Chandler noted that he does not own the view and cannot control it, and said it is increasingly obscured by air pollution.
Besides, he is legally blind.
"I'm not enjoying that view, at least not as much as Avitar thinks I should be," he said.