Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

In his letter to the editor (Feb. 28) Peter Williams displays a shaky grasp of the facts, the issues, and the implications of the most recent property revaluation in West Tisbury. Mr. Williams applauds the sharp increase in the valuations of certain waterfront and waterview properties. "This helps all the little people," he says; "it helps all of the local people, being priced out of their homes, by reducing their tax bill." I sympathize with the principle, that those who have more should pay more; "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need," as Karl Marx put it. Indeed, the owners of valuable properties have been paying more all along. Often their demands on town services are minimal, and the seasonal residents among them don't have a say in how their tax money is spent. As Mr. Williams asks on another point, "What is there to dislike about that?" If a goose settles into your backyard and starts laying golden eggs, are you going to report it to Animal Control?

I can see it from both sides. I've been a year-round working resident of Martha's Vineyard since 1985. I've never come close to being able to afford property here. In retrospect, land prices in the mid-1980s look cheap, but they didn't seem so at the time to a single woman making less than $20,000 a year. So I've moved 11 times since 1985, including four times since 2001. At the same time, I'm now the co-owner, with my three siblings, of four acres and a camp on Tisbury Great Pond. My father bought the land and built the camp in the early 1970s for less than $50,000. Improvements over the years have minimal, but by FY2004 the place was valued at $1,775,400 (tax bill: $9,551.65). The valuation for FY2007 was $2,123,800 (tax bill: $9,568). Nothing prepared us, or our neighbors, for the FY2008 bills. Our assessment had more than doubled, to $4,419,700, and the taxes had jumped 83 percent, to $17,511.88. If my income tax jumped 83 percent in a year, I'd be stunned -- but presumably the spike in tax would have resulted from a spike in income, so I'd probably manage to come up with the money. Property taxes, by contrast, are regressive: they have nothing to do with either the property's income or the owner's. They're based on a purely theoretical figure: the price that the town assessors think the property would bring on the open market.

And that's where the issue gets complicated. The portion of Tisbury Great Pond that I know best -- Deep Bottom Cove, Tiah's Cove, Thumb Cove, and the eastern side of the main pond -- has been remarkably stable for decades. Few properties ever go on the open market, so those that are bought and sold have a major impact on the theoretical values of those that aren't. On the eastern side of Tisbury Great Pond, it appears that the sale of one particular property is having a tsunami effect on all properties in the vicinity. I say "appears" because other than the purchase price -- around $19 million -- the details of this sale are on no public record. How long was it on the market? Was it an arm's-length transaction? When making valuations, the assessors have the option to exclude from consideration high sales, low sales, and otherwise atypical sales. They chose not to exclude this sale. Why? What did they know that we can't find out?

In his happy dance for the "little people," Peter Williams is missing something big: that there are some players out there whose wealth is so great that nearly all of us are little in comparison. Two billionaires strike a deal and the lives of hundreds of people whose existence they're totally unaware of are immediately affected; hundreds more, maybe thousands, will feel the effects of this deal in the longer term. The gods are dicing with thunderbolts, but all Mr. Williams sees is the goose out back laying those golden eggs. Unfortunately he's not alone. The market gods -- the gods of the millionaires, billionaires, and everyone who believes that value can always be measured in money -- have been running the show for quite some time. They didn't notice, or care, as the price of land galloped out of reach of most working people, dragging the price of everything else along with it.

If the latest round of valuations stands, more Tisbury Great Pond riparian owners will give up and sell out, pushing the market value of their neighbors' properties higher until more of them throw in the towel. Eventually mega-mansions will be the rule, not the exception, and then what? Peter Williams expresses a touching faith in the "Boston tax court" -- I think he means the state Appellate Tax Board -- that I don't share. Mr. Williams doesn't realize that millionaires and billionaires can overrun the playing field without ever winning in court. Their lawyers will call the tune, and the little town of West Tisbury will be dancing a very unhappy dance. The goose in the backyard will keel over dead, and there won't be anyone left to scapegoat.

Susanna J. Sturgis
West Tisbury

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