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Taxman puts a price on panoramas

Can you value a view? That is the question captivating New Hampshire as town officials embark on an controversial quest to quantify -- and then tax -- the beauty of their residents' vistas.
Plainfield, N.H. resident Brad Wilder stands in front of his hillside home's sweeping view -- the subject of a strange tax battle since 2003.
Plainfield, N.H. resident Brad Wilder stands in front of his hillside home's sweeping view -- the subject of a strange tax battle since 2003.David A. Fahrenthold / The Washington Post
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The view from Brad Wilder's hillside house is a 270-degree panorama of New England high country: the rugged peak of Mount Ascutney, the reddening leaves and white-painted houses of the Connecticut River valley and -- on some lucky fall days -- migratory geese cruising by at eye level.

His vista is stunning. But you can't say it's priceless.

Wilder's view has actually been valued right down to the dollar: According to the town of Plainfield, it is worth $237,265. In 2003, town officials deemed it a bonus feature of his home, like a third bathroom or marble countertops, and ordered him to pay about $4,700 in property taxes for it.

Which left Wilder with a lot of questions.

Chief among them: How do you value a view?

That is the strange conundrum that is captivating New Hampshire at the moment, as town officials have embarked on an controversial quest to quantify -- and then tax -- the beauty of their residents' vistas.

Now, landowners with high-value views are livid about their tax bills, and they have started pressing officials to explain just how, exactly, they managed to distill the ineffable majesty of nature into dollar values.

Turns out, it is not a totally exact science.

"It's more of an 'I know it when I see it' kind of thing," said Thomas Holmes, the assessor for the town of Conway, N.H.

Not unique to N.H.
The problem in New Hampshire is not simply that "view factors" are being used in property appraisal -- that is by no means unique to the Granite State. In most places, experts say, if a property's view is good enough to make a buyer pay something extra for it, an assessor will try to estimate that something extra and include it in the property's assessed value.

In the Washington area, for instance, an Annapolis home with a view of the Severn River might be worth 15 percent more than a similar house with a view of a cul-de-sac.

But New Hampshire is different, because the state's views have become so sky-high valuable, and so fast. Statewide, one assessor said the maximum value added because of a view has jumped from a maximum of around $20,000 about 10 years ago to $200,000 or more now.

One example among many: In Winchester, N.H., Bennet Nicholson's view of the Connecticut River valley helped bump his property value up from about $98,000 in 2002 to about $273,000 in 2003 -- and more than doubled his property taxes.

"There's no way that I could keep on paying $10,000 a year in taxes," he said. Nicholson left the house where he had planned to spend the rest of his life and moved to Canada's Prince Edward Island.

The change has been blamed in part on New Hampshire's lack of a sales tax or personal income tax, which means that property taxes bear much of the revenue burden. In recent years, the state has been pushing towns to keep their property assessments up to date so that none of this crucial revenue is missed.

At the same time, the state's real estate market was being knocked out of whack by an influx of outsiders seeking vacation, weekend or permanent homes -- often with a view.

"They come up from down below," said Guy Petell, the state's chief of property appraisals. He meant places such as Boston, Connecticut and New York, with more money but smaller hills. "They want to be able to look around the world."

Learning from the 'View Manual'
So here, property assessors say, was their assignment: Try to judge each of the state's properties, and especially each vista, through the eyes of the view-hungry buyers who were driving the market. There were no state guidelines to help them compare views.

"I hate saying that it's subjective," said Gary J. Roberge, chief executive officer of the company that valued Wilder's view. "But it is."

There are, in some cases, rules of thumb that appraisers can turn to for help. For instance, a view of a "name mountain," such as Mount Washington or others in the famed Presidential Range, is usually worth more than a view of a less-famous peak. Also, 90 degrees of view is better than 45, and a river and hills are usually worth more than hills alone.

But that is about as hard and fast as the business of valuing views seems to get.

In an interview at his offices in Chichester, N.H., Roberge went through pages from a "View Manual," showing a range of vistas rated middling to spectacular.

There was a "300" rated property, whose view had a barn up close and a mountain in the distance. "You've got a little bit of the horizon," Roberge said. That little bit, in this case, was enough view to triple the land's value -- a difference of $96,000 or more for an average property in a place such as Plainfield, he said.

Then Roberge got to a "500" view, with a lot more horizon and distance. "It just goes on forever," Roberge said. It would add $192,000 to the same property.

He looked at a "600" view, which was a panorama of mountains and receding hills such as Wilder's in Plainfield. "If you were standing up there looking at it, it would blow you away," Roberge said. For that quality, Roberge said, land such as this would be worth six times its original value, for an increase of $240,000 just because of the view.

To which some landowners say: That's all there is to it?

"The formula sucks pond water," said John Frado, 60, whose property in Winchester jumped in value by $70,000 because of another assessing company's opinion of its overlook.

Forcing residents out
When Wilder contested his valuation in court, a local judge came to a similar, though more decorously worded, conclusion: The appraisal was "not supported by evidence of anything other than the subjective judgment of the appraising company." He ordered it reduced, though the case has been appealed.

After protests across the state, state lawmakers are now considering ways to ensure that, in the future, assessors give more evidence to support the values they place on views.

"What do you see?" asked state Rep. Betsey L. Patten (R). "I want you to explain."

For now, though, what residents call the "view tax" still has many longtime residents worrying that the mountain on the distance will soon force them off the land beneath their feet. When farmer John Lynch, 65, found that his view had been valued at about $65,000, he confronted someone from the assessing company: "How do you think we're going to hang on here?"

Lynch, who lives in the town of Hill, N.H., said that one of the odd parts about this controversy is that, with his attention always on the land, he rarely spends time gazing out at his valuable view.

"You very seldom look," Lynch said. "Well, to see the weather or the sunset . . . ." Suddenly, he was troubled by the thought of a tax on sunsets.

"Oh," he said, "don't tell them about that."