Shandaken Landowners' Association loses legal battle

By Jay Braman Jr.
A seven-year-long tax squabble between 18 landowners and the Town of Shandaken ended last week when a jury ruled that the town had some “rational basis” for raising the assessments of parcels that had more than 20 acres of undeveloped land.

In a prepared statement, Town Supervisor Rob Stanley said the suit was originally commenced in 2006 to challenge the 2005 reassessment by several large landowners and named the town, the town board of assessors, the town supervisor, the town assessor and other members of the town board of assessors.

The town was represented in the trial by Kyle W. Barnett of the law firm of Van DeWater & Van DeWater, LLP in Poughkeepsie.

“What made this case so challenging was that it was the first of its kind involving a complex area of the law and also because it was tried before a jury, so in many ways we were forging new ground,” Barnett said. “In the end, though, the jury got it right.”

Stanley said the suit was brought pursuant to a federal statute known as “Section 1983,” which is a civil rights law that provides for damages in the event of a violation of constitutional rights.

“The plaintiffs alleged that the upward reassessment of their properties violated equal protection under the United States Constitution, when certain smaller, privately owned parcels and certain large, state-owned parcels were not reassessed,” said Stanley.

“The trial, held before the Honorable Mary Work, lasted five days. The jury’s verdict was that the town assessor had a rational basis for her actions, and therefore the reassessments were constitutional.”

War is not over
Brian Powers, a Chichester resident who was among the plaintiffs, said that, as far as he is concerned, the war is not over yet.

“It’s my understanding we’ll be asking the judge to vacate the decision, filing our notice of appeal, and reviewing our options,” he said.

Powers added that there were too many parameters set up around the jury.

“While we’d proven we had been selected for materially different treatment from the rest of the town’s taxpayers, they (the jury) couldn’t check off a box saying definitively that there was “no rational basis” for Shandaken’s selective revaluation of private lands over 20 acres in size,” Powers said. “It wasn’t lawful or anything, but they weren’t ask to consider that, only whether the town in its own mind, had some rationale for what it did. The question couldn’t have been framed more ridiculously for the jurors.”

When the landowners association first filed the lawsuit, then Town Supervisor Robert Cross Jr. defended the revaluation of the properties.

Outlining his understanding that some landowners with 20 acres or more had assessments ranging from $300 to $2,000 an acre, Cross said the minimum was raised because those paying on the lower end of the scale had been “enjoying” the benefits of valuations that haven’t changed in 30 years.
The landowners’ lawsuit claims the town chose to overlook several parcels that met the 20-acre criterion, suggesting favoritism for some individuals and organizations, and made no increase to any parcel under 20 acres.