$13.8 million? Too high, Carter Winstanley told the city’s private appraisers. He bargained them down by $1.7 million, avoiding what could have been a costly court appeal.
Winstanley was talking about the new assessed value of his gun factory-turned-office building at 344 Winchester Ave. during New Haven’s most recent citywide property revaluation. Vision Appraisal, the private firm hired to conduct the revaluation, agreed to knock 12.6 percent off of its original proposal after Winstanley’s firm objected, according to data released by the city in response to an Independent Freedom of Information request.
The city OK’d the change, as it did with hundreds of privately adjusted assessments.
Winstanley’s building, a former US Repeating Arms factory building now reborn as office space for Yale, was one of the top 15 properties whose owners successfully bargained down Vision Appraisal as part of last year’s revaluation of all city property.
The negotiations were part of an unusually disparate revaluation that socked some parts of town and sent relief to others.
The data give a behind-the-scenes look at a important step in the difficult process of deciding a new value for 27,000 real properties across town.
As part of the revaluation, the city released a preliminary grand list of all taxable properties last Dec. 7. Then it gave property owners a chance to contest their new assessments in a series of informal hearings with Vision Appraisal. The data show which property owners got their values changed through this informal method—before the grand list was approved on Jan. 31, and before a public appeals process began.
Vision Appraisal granted reductions on 492 city properties, and agreed to increase values on 57 properties, through informal hearings, the data show. In all, the adjustments took $14.8 million off the grand list. The average reduction was 10.7 percent.
Fifteen properties won $1 million-plus reductions through this process, according to the data. The top 30 markdowns, by the total amount of reduction, are marked in red on the map at the top of the story; other reductions are marked in blue. The increases—which could be helpful in cases where a homeowner is looking to sell—are marked in green.
Taxpayers can’t always make their case directly to Vision. They can do so only during a revaluation, which now happens ever five years, according to Alex Pullen, the city’s acting tax assessor.
Pullen said the informal hearings with Vision aim to give taxpayers a chance to address factual errors in their assessments before the grand list gets finalized. Taxpayers may also plead their cases to the Board of Assessment Appeals (BAA): That civilian board granted reductions to 306 of 1,036 real estate property owners earlier this year.
The list of properties shows some major players in New Haven winning relief through the informal hearings. In some cases, they avoided costly court cases; in others, they still weren’t satisfied and pursued the matter further, before the BAA and in state Superior Court.
Read on for a sample of those on the list.
Vision knocked down the assessed value of Winstanley’s property at 344 Winchester (pictured) from a proposed $13,765,500 to $12,032,860. Winstanley said his firm, Winstanley Enterprises, handled the negotiation; he said he was not directly involved. The land is owned by Science Park Development Corporation; Winstanley owns the building and rents it out to Yale.
Winstanley said the assessment wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. “We go in on behalf of our tenants to manage the assessment on our properties” at a tenant’s request, he said. “We do it in every community.”
Further down Winchester, David Silverstone, head of the Science Park Development Corporation, said his group took issue with Vision’s assessment of two buildings, 395 and 375 Winchester. The appraisers got the square footage wrong, he said. Vision knocked down the assessments by 9.9 and 12.6 percent respectively, to $5.9 and $2.4 million.
The Chase Family won a $3 million reduction on 157 Church St., bringing the assessment to $48.2 million. Cheryl Chase declined comment for the story.
Northland Investment Corporation, acting as Church Street New Haven LLC, bargained down the assessment at the Church Street South housing complex by 22 percent, down to $10.1 million.
Not everyone was happy with Vision’s final decision.
Vision originally assessed the “Gold Building” (pictured) at 234 Church St. at $6.4 million.
Of all the properties Vision assessed, “There were some that we felt were on the mark. That was one that we felt was not on the mark,” said Michael Schaffer, secretary and co-owner of C.A. White, a family business that owns the Gold Building through a limited liability corporation. Michael’s brother Tony Schaffer made the case for a reduction in a meeting with Vision Appraisal.
“The numbers are way too high,” Tony Schaffer said. The appraisers marked down the assessment to $5.6 million, which he said was still beyond the Schaffer’s own estimate.
The Schaffers turned to the next avenue for relief: They filed an appeal with the BAA. The BAA denied the appeal, as it typically does for properties assessed over $1 million, allowing the appellant to pursue the case in state Superior Court. That’s where the Gold Building case now sits.
Carabetta Management, which owns the Bella Vista private senior housing complex, also ended up in court after winning some initial relief from Vision in informal hearings. Vision knocked off $11 million from four properties originally assessed at $75.8 million.
Yale University bargained down the value of 175 Whitney Ave., 200 Prospect St., 150 York St, and 310 Elm St. The first one is tax-exempt. At 310 Elm St., Vision decreased the portion of taxable property and increased the portion of tax-exempt property.
Tony Schaffer said meeting with Vision is a routine part of the revaluation process, to see if a property owner can settle a dispute without going to court.
Acting Assessor Pullen said each time Vision makes a change to the preliminary grand list, his office checks the math. There is “no set process” for doing so, he said—officials from Vision call his office, send emails, or visit in person to discuss changes. The main point people at Vision who work with the city are J. Michael Tarello and Gary Fields. Pullen said he couldn’t recall if his office rejected any proposed changes the company wanted to make—the process took place nearly a year ago, he noted.
In the end, Pullen said, the assessor’s office is responsible for any changes.
“Vision Appraisal doesn’t have to go to court to defend the values—we do,” he said.
Pullen said the informal hearings give Vision a chance to explain the rationale behind a given assessment.
The hearings also aim to address “factual errors” in the assessments, such as the number of bathrooms or the square footage in a home. With 27,000 properties, there are bound to be some mistakes, Pullen said.
“If it’s your property, you’re going to be looking at it with a more meticulous eye,” Pullen said. “It’s just the nature of mass appraisal.”