On November 27, 2019

Hartland group finds $8 million in untaxed structures

By Curt Peterson

HARTLAND–Almost 90 residents attended the Hartland Municipal Resources Group’s (HMRG) breakfast on Nov. 16.

Hartland has the third largest population in Windsor County after Springfield and Hartford, and, unlike adjacent towns, is growing in population. HMRG was formed to study Hartland’s resources and make recommendations for management to the Select Board, according to spokesperson Andy Kelly.

Interest was stoked by listserv discussions of $8 million worth of untaxed structures identified during the recent reappraisal process, and talk about possible zoning ordinances, building permits, pollution, health and safety regarding the alleged undocumented buildings.

Residents were animated by perceived unfair tax evasion by the owners, lost revenue for town maintenance and improvements, lack of adequate information for first-responders, pollution from suspected septic system inadequacies and disruptive influx of unexpected students arriving at Hartland Elementary School in September.

How do homes get built under the radar? Even without building permit requirements the information may be available — most new residents change their drivers’ license and registration addresses, register to vote, advise the post office where to deliver mail, get a telephone line installed, incur utility bills, file mortgage liens with their deeds and open bank accounts. Coordinating all the available information, resident John Bruno said, would be a good idea.

Hartland Volunteer Fire Department chief John Sanders addressed safety issues. Lack of accurate 911 addresses for undocumented dwellings makes responding to fires and health emergencies difficult and unsafe for responders, he said. He thinks education regarding regulations and safety is key.

“For example, some older residents think they have the right to burn trash outside their homes,” Sanders said. “Once I talk to them and explain how dangerous and toxic it is, they stop doing it.”

Town Manager Dave Ormiston described some of the discovered untaxed assets as multiple mobile homes moved onto one property with no individual 911 addresses, additions, sheds and barns.

Pressed for more accurate information, Board of Listers chairman Doug Linnell said he thought there were actually fewer than 10 “total surprises” in the past three years, hardly the “rapid growth” depicted in one listserve email.

Consensus was the town needs a “coordinator and enforcer of all regulations”, which would be a new position, and HMRG should recommend both hiring the coordinator and passing a “construction notification and certification requirement” ordinance to minimize the number of unidentified structures in town.

This would not be a “zoning ordinance” or a “building permit requirement,” HMRG member Sarah Kobylenski said, and would involve a very modest fee.

“It would help make sure we are all taxed in a fair way,” she said. “The details would be up to the Select Board.”

Funding for the position would not come from “a pot of money created by increased tax revenue,” Select Board chair Gordon Richardson said.

Adding the properties to the Grand List would only spread out the costs of operating the town among more property owners – the budget would remain the same. There is also no legal way to retrieve missed taxes on the unassessed assets retroactively.

Eighty percent of property tax revenue goes to fund education, and twenty percent is available for local expenses. This means tax revenue from only $1,600,000 of the discovered assets will cover town expenses, relative to Hartland’s total Grand List of more than $400 million.

Select Board members discussed a part-time position, possibly to be funded in the 2020-2021 budget and will ask Two Rivers Ottauquechee Regional Commission to suggest an ordinance such as the one recommended by HMRG.

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