October 11, 2006

Reassessment Wrongs Righted

Many Sag Harbor residents were relieved to learn last week that the assessed value of their homes had been significantly lowered, the result of a determined effort by one of their own.

About 500 properties in this community of modest, 200-year-old homes was hit with a recent Southampton Town reassessment that sent assessed values soaring and left homeowners wondering if skyrocketing taxes would push them straight out of town.

Residents sent out a battle cry, claiming that the reassessment was botched. Stacey Pennebaker, a local resident, took up the cause, and a chance meeting with The Independent's Editor-in-Chief Rick Murphy at a local supermarket yielded another ally. "He was the most principled player in this," she said.

Pennebaker said while she and resident Ted Jeremenko were involved in the fight to get the problem publicized, it was Murphy who saw that something was very wrong in Sag Harbor.

Pennebaker and Murphy grew up together in the village and frequented many of the homes adversely affected by the faulty reassessment. "Everyone grieved and no one paid attention," she said.

The problem had to do with the sale of a few high-end houses in recent years that have commanded steep prices and tipped the scales unfairly for other homes in the area worth far less. Because assessors use an area median to calculate end results, the "land value becomes very overpriced," she added.

Pennebaker told Murphy something was amiss. "He looked at it and said, 'I think you've got something here,'" she said.

Pennebaker said because Murphy, whose family owned a home on Howard Street, was familiar with the area, he was shocked by the staggering inequities after the recent reassessment. He took a tour of Sag Harbor with a photographer and published pictures of some houses in question in the paper, with the home where his mother was born on the cover. The 1770 rickety building was assessed at a whopping $2.4 million. "My mother nearly had a stroke," said Murphy, whose family sold the old place years ago for $40,000.

Murphy contacted Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney and got the ball rolling.

From that point on, the winds of change began to work in the favor of residents, who turned out to protest the reassessment in both Southampton Town Board and Sag Harbor meetings.

A week later, town reps contacted Pennebaker, who pointed out which houses were improved or restored and which weren't.

Eventually, the faulty math was reversed. "All the values became more realistic," Pennebaker reported.

Pennebaker said the effort was the result of all involved "who wanted to do good. Everyone knew someone who was being hurt."

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