They’re tucked away on quiet, little-traveled roads with pastoral names like Lost Cove, Oakledge, Eagle Mountain Harbor, Converse Bay or Quaker Smith Point. Many look out onto expansive mountain vistas — Mt. Mansfield and the Greens to the east and the Adirondack peaks to the west. Others hug the shores of Lake Champlain, with front-row seats to views of postcard sunsets.
They’re the priciest homes of Chittenden County — at the top of the list in terms of fair-market values applied to them by a corps of town tax assessors who often struggle to evaluate one-of-a-kind, highly distinctive properties.
Vermont’s real estates are changing the financial picture for a number of municipalities. Most cities and towns have recently sent out annual tax bills, with first payments due in mid-August or mid-September. Act 60 has kicked some tax rates up sharply; others are edging upward more slowly. But it’s clear that schools, town highway departments, local libraries and fire and police forces are reaping more and more support from top properties.
Gleaned from public records in Chittenden County, the Seven Days Top 10 List of the highest residential appraisals shows hefty tax payments, but also a wide gulf in values.
In Shelburne, for example, all top 10 homesites are appraised for more than $1 million. The leading parcel, on High Acres Farm Drive and owned by Kate Webb Harris, will produce about $46,000 in property taxes this year.
In Winooski, on the other hand, the highest-valued home is $172,200; the Keenans of Pine Grove Terrace will ante up a relatively modest $3766 in property taxes. “It’s high for the area,” remarks Kathleen Keenan, whose husband Colin built the home at the end of a dead-end street near the top of North Street.
The biggest tax bill in our list of 16 towns is no big surprise; it belongs to Burlington’s Amy Tarrant, who owns the former Society of St. Edmund residence near the Burlington Country Club on South Prospect Street. The 13,000-square-foot home is appraised at $2.5 million, yielding an annual tax bill of $59,116.
The Whalley Road home of Peter Pollak and Suzanne Parker-Pollak in Charlotte is not far behind, assessed at $2.25 million and carrying a yearly tax bill of over $40,000.
Lost Cove Road, home to four of Colchester’s top 10 houses, is the Vermont equivalent of Monopoly’s Boardwalk. Edging along the north shore of Malletts Bay, it’s off Clay Point Road, and there’s no reason to visit unless you’re a resident on the private lakeside lane — or one of the burgeoning number of house builders at work on new homes there.
Colchester’s priciest home on Clay Point Road is owned by Arthur and Patricia Wegner. Appraised this year at nearly $1.2 million, the property is expected to increase in value next year because it’s still under construction.
But the Wegner home, and Tarrant’s too, will soon be overshadowed by the planned home of Robert and Andrea FitzHenry, to be built on Lost Cove Road’s lot number 12. Colchester town officials awarded a building permit in July to Michael Crane of Three Season Builders on behalf of the owners for a two-story, 15,000-square-foot house; construction costs are estimated to be $3 million, which will be happy news for building-supply firms.
The FitzHenry house has been designed by architects at Truex, Cullins and partners of Burlington. The design on file at the town offices includes a “great room,” large porches, gallery, elevator, office, three bedrooms and seven-and-a-half-bathrooms, two-car garage and two-car carport. This is all situated on a 2.9-acre lot assessed by the town at $429,000. Town officials say the number of bedrooms is limited due to state standards for sewage capacity on the homesite.
It’s hard to put a price tag on these sprawling, shore-hugging, majestic homes. Local assessors base many of their judgments by comparing sales of similar properties. But with multi-million dollar houses, few comparisons are near at hand.
William Johnson, the state’s director of Property Valuation and Review, says there’s a two-year trend of high-end properties selling significantly higher than local assessments, especially in Chittenden County and resort areas.
“The high-end properties are increasing at a brisker pace as compared to the rest of the market,” he says. “In Chittenden County, it’s due, I think, to the general prosperity of the country, and this is reflected in the stock market and so on. Folks have the money to spend.”
Johnson agrees that the top-priced houses pose problems for the experts. “Your typical ranch house on an urban street is more predictable as to what it’s going to go for,” he notes. “Some of these houses — like a $750,000 house or a lakeshore property down in Shelburne — you’ve got to look at what their market is.
“These houses have a market that goes well beyond Vermont,” Johnson continues. “A nice house with good shorefront on Lake Champlain is going to attract a national market, or even an international market. It’s much harder to put your thumb on exactly what the value is. Although I think it’s safe to say, given recent history, they often sell for considerably more than what the towns have them appraised for.”
Colchester assessor Mark Paulsen noted that one lakeshore home the town has listed in the $750,000 range is currently for sale at $1.5 million. The advertising on the property praises breathtaking sunsets as well as “many upscale features — Italian tile and marble, scrumptious gourmet kitchen and wonderful master suite.”
“The price certainly concerns me,” Paulsen says, “but at this point it’s not a valid sale. Colchester’s assessments are usually closer to the sale prices than that.” He adds that the town’s assessment models may not work for all homes, but “We try to be as close as we can.”
Shelburne has recently reported sales; ranging far above assessed values: a $662,000 parcel selling for $1.3 million; a $310,000 parcel selling for $725,000; a $400,000 parcel going for nearly $700,000.
A town doesn’t get in trouble with the state and Act 60 funding penalties until the difference between selling prices and assessments for the entire town is greater than 20 percent. Assessors have a technical term for the ratio: the “coefficient of dispersion.” But it takes a space of skewed sales to get the state’s attention.
“We put no more weight on... the sale of a $700,000 home that sells for $1.5 million than we do a ranch house that sells for $100,000 that is assessed for $98,000,” Johnson says. “Unless there are a number of those, it shouldn’t reflect too harshly on a town.”
A big gap can show up in any town. Burlington assessor Dana Dean points to the April 25 sale of a home at 45 Overlake Park, a cul-de-sac at the end of Summit Street in the city’s hill section, close to the University of Vermont, the hospital and the Burlington Country Club. The property is assessed for tax purposes at $253,900, but sold for $530,000, more than twice the tax appraisal.
“There’s been a hot demand for property in Burlington, and the hill section is one of the most desirable areas,” Dean notes.
Essex assessor Randy Viens, whose office reviews property values for both Essex Town and the village of Essex Junction, says owners of houses which sold last year for $175,000 are getting more than $200,000 this season. “The market has jumped like crazy,” he attests, adding, “I’d hate to be buying right now.”
John and Cornelia Carpenter are feeling the tax pinch of rising lakeshore prices in Burlington. They acquired a camp on Oakledge Road at the foot of Home Avenue nearly 50 years ago. In the 1970s, they renovated it into a tasteful, but hardly ostentatious, year-round home. Today the retired couple owns the second-highest-valued home on city tax rolls, appraised at $888,800.
“It’s the lake,” Cornelia says, that has pushed values and taxes so high. The demand for a view of and access to Lake Champlain has been unrelenting; the city’s property reappraisal in the mid-1980s brought many older homes in line with modern home prices and the taxes they require.
The Carpenter home sports a homemade sign near the entryway that reads, “Welcome to Camp Oakledge. We’re glad you’re here.” Their five children and families are frequent summer guests. “We love the lake and we don’t want to sell,” Cornelia says. “We’re lucky we can do it.”
“Everybody wants to be on the water, but you’ve got to pay for it,” observes South Burlington assessor John Vickery, noting that recent sales along the lake indicate prices are surging higher.
Vickery, in his first year as assessor, has yet to visit the town’s top residential property — the Allenwood compound off Shelburne Road, formerly owned by the late Thomas Farrell and now held by the family, with David Farrell as trustee. The library at Trinity College is named after Thomas Farrell and family.
He acquired the property as a private residence in the 1940s from the E.P. Woodbury estate, when the property housed an inn, banquet hall and cottages for rent. The 22-room mansion on the site was destroyed by fire on Dec. 7, 1961. City records now list the property as a “defunct resort” and private estate.
The compound is assessed at $1,713,100 and provides $42,280 in taxes to South Burlington. Included in the assessment is the 6776-square foot, 12-room main house, 2180 feet of lake frontage, two smaller houses and seven “camps” ranging in size from 700 to 2300 square feet. The 106-acre site also includes a yacht club, boathouse, storage building and a commercial lot near Shelburne Road.
Up the coast in Milton, lakeshore properties are getting increasing attention from real estate brokers, builders, and buyers seeking more affordable lake access and homes. Eagle Mountain Harbor Road — a narrow, dead-end lane winding along Lake Champlain southward from Lake Road, about nine miles from the town’s Grand Union supermarket — is home to three of Milton’s Top 10 homes. An old Victorian-era resort still rents out cottages at the end of the road, with a mix of seasonal and year-round homes.
“The whole area is turning to more and more valuable properties,” reports Gisela Wolfe, who’s lived on Milton’s lakefront since 1982 — the last six years on Eagle Mountain Road. “They are renovating the summer homes into year-round places,” she adds. “It’s a lovely, quiet area. The sunsets are like the Bahamas, very beautiful. At night you can see the lights of Montréal if it’s clear.”
Wolfe likes her privacy and enjoys keeping animals — peacocks, pheasants, turkeys, chickens, even a couple of emus — on her land. The undeveloped tract near hers has recently been sold, and she has planted trees in response. She suggests wistfully, “Maybe they will grow faster than the houses.”
Public records on property assessments and taxes were obtained from individual town offices.