Portsmouth councilors cross dotted line into ethical gray zone (update)
|Plat Map 20, Lot 285 (click to embiggen)|
At last night's meeting of the Portsmouth Town Council, two sitting members discussed (and in at least one case voted on) a real estate question in which, according to public records, they appear to have a personal financial interest.
Let's get the actual news out of the way first: the Council is so dysfunctional that they couldn't even vote to go into executive session on wastewater litigation. We paid our two wastewater attorneys to sit in the audience while they nattered about dotted-line lots for two hours. Great show of respect for your legal team and excellent use of our taxpayer dollars. With Mike Buddemeyer absent, the vote was 3-3, with Judi Staven, Liz Pedro, and Paul "Transparancy" Kesson voting no. Is this really the best way to mount a vigorous defense against the DEM?
But the reeeeaallly interesting thing was that discussion of the dotted line lots.
Particularly common in Island Park and Common Fence Point, such lots are tax entities created to facilitate accounting, overlaid on recorded lot lines, Andre D'Andrea, the Town Solicitor, explained in a presentation to the Council. Prior to subdivision regulations, said D'Andrea, the owner of a piece of property could create arbitrary slices, some of which were not effectively buildable in isolation.
If someone purchased adjacent slices, they might build a house that straddled the line, or they might build their house on one and use the other for their septic system, effectively merging them "by use." In some cases, however, the slices may simply be unimproved yards, which could subsequently be sold off separately. And therein lies the financial impact.
Right now, owners of such dotted line entities receive one tax bill for the entire collection of property. "Assessments don't reflect the separate lots," said Tax Assessor David Dolce, who said that he had considered how to merge or fully split the parcels, but determined that, since it would need to be done for all properties in town at the same time, it would be difficult. "There are solutions to this," he said, "But they are complicated."
D'Andrea stressed that these were tax entities created for "convenience," by the assessor in order to send one tax bill for all connected lots. "The tax assessor, for his purposes, may have drawn a line," said D'Andrea, "But that does not change the underlying reality that someone created these lots and they exist."
And the tax implications could be significant. In the case of unmerged, buildable lots, current owners are not being taxed at the full market value.
Councilor Liz Pedro argued that with small lots that didn't meet current zoning requirements, the question was moot. "You can't consider them if you can't build on them," she said.
D'Andrea advised the Council that this was not the case, since a variance could be sought. "If the owner can demonstrate that this was not his fault," said D'Andrea, and constituted more than an "inconvenience," it could be sufficient grounds.
Which brings us to the ethical dotted line. About an hour into the discussion, Councilor Paul Kesson volunteered that he was the owner of one such property (Plat 5 Lot 24A, map). Kesson had asked Dolce whether he wouldn't need to ask the owner's permission to consolidate or split lots.
And according to Vision Appraisal, Councilor Liz Pedro is the owner of a lot at 0 Pearl St, next door to her address at 15 Pearl St, which appears on the Plat map with two dotted lines (Plat 20 Lot 285, map), a fact which she did not disclose during the meeting.
Can Pedro and Kesson argue that this falls under the "class exception" in the RI Ethics law? That's what allows Councilors to vote on property taxes even though they are taxpayers, because they pay the same as everyone else. But does owning a dotted line lot rise to the level of a "significant and definable class of persons" as required under the statute?
When I raised this issue at the meeting last night, and asked Council President Robicheau if any members of the Council should recuse, Kesson merely pushed his microphone aside and remained on the dais. If Pedro acknowledged in any way, I missed it. And while the vote last night was simply to task town officials with investigating the number of lots, the discussion leading up to that definitely touched on the economic impacts. I could not actually tell if Kesson voted.
Update: Portsmouth Patch reports that Kesson did, in fact vote, and invoked the class exception when questioned by the reporter.
Full disclosure: I own and live on a dotted-line lot which is irrevocably merged by use.