Landowner appeals town taking land by tax deed

Late tax payment results in loss of 25-acre plot of land; $13,320 in interest and fees required for its return, officials say

SHARON — For three years, starting in 2009, Bob Van Dyke didn’t pay taxes on a 25-acre plot of land that he owns on Swamp Road. It was a business decision, he says in an open letter he has written to the residents of Sharon, prompted by the weak economy at the time. Van Dyke, who lives in Rindge and runs a construction business, says he was well aware that he’d be required to pay interest and that eventually the town could take the land by tax deed, if the taxes remained unpaid after three years.

Back in July 2012, Van Dyke was notified by the town that the property would be taken by tax deed unless he paid the 2009 taxes and interest. He says he mailed a check for $2,588.94 on Aug. 14, 2012, nine days before it was due. But the check didn’t arrive until mid-September, by which time the town had already taken possession of the land by tax deed.

Van Dyke wants the land back, and the town is willing to re-deed it to him. But he’s unwilling to pay a penalty of 15 percent of the assessed value of the land and unwilling to pay legal fees, so he has taken the town to court. The case will be heard on Thursday in Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester.

In his letter, Van Dyke wrote that he had sent the payment to a post office box that the town had closed, so it was rerouted and took until Sept. 17, 2012, to arrive. He said that in October 2012 he got a letter from Sharon’s legal counsel, Norman Makechnie, stating that his check had been rejected. Van Dyke wrote that he proposed, through an attorney, that “a bit of common sense be applied to this situation.” He wrote that he got back a letter, with no apology for the expired post office box, which stated he would have to pay the back taxes and interest and also a 15 percent penalty, which amounts to $12,420 on the $82,800 assessed value of the property, along with legal fees of $900, in order to have the land re-deeded to him.

“In my mind, and in the minds of most people I know, taking a tax deed on a person’s property for nonpayment of property taxes is a big deal,” Van Dyke wrote. “When our government takes a tax deed on someone’s property, government is exercising the ultimate authority it has over a person’s ownership rights in property. ... I find it hard to believe that if the residents of Sharon understood the undisputed facts of this situation, they would conclude it was morally correct for the selectmen to require me to pay $13,320 in penalty and legal fees to have my property deeded back to me.”

Sharon Town Administrator Chet Bowles said last week that deeds aren’t taken until attempts are made to contact the property owner.

“There is a process outlined by the state, and all that was done,” Bowles said. “Unfortunately, he mailed his payment to an incorrect address, in spite of having received letters with the correct address. The date that a payment was mailed isn’t what matters. The important thing is when the payment is received.”

Bowles said the payment check didn’t get to Sharon until about six weeks after the due date.

“This happens very rarely for us,” Bowles said. “I can recall only one other case in the past 15 years. In that case, the property owner did pay the penalty and fees. In order to be consistent, we do not feel it would be appropriate to make a different arrangement. The Select Board has to treat everyone the same way.”

On Monday, Van Dyke said he was surprised when his payment check was returned.

“It didn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “I had mailed it nine days before the deadline. I called the tax collector and she said she’d been advised not to talk to me. We tried to talk to the Select Board and they just referred it to the town attorney.”

Van Dyke said he doesn’t think the board’s decision is fair.

“The fault, in my opinion, is all on their side,” he said. “I had tried to pay the taxes. I would have paid the interest. They didn’t want to hear anything about it.”

In his open letter, Van Dyke urged Sharon residents to contact the Select Board.

“Who is going to stand up and say that in Sharon, if we learn that someone has mailed a tax payment well before it is due, but it arrives late, we do not use that as an opportunity to collect $13,320 in penalties and fees?” he wrote. “Ask yourself, is this an obvious wrong?”

Bowles said the Select Board will be happy to re-deed the land to Van Dyke once the back taxes, interest, penalties and legal fees are paid. He said Van Dyke has not paid any taxes on the land since 2009, and the legal fees will be increasing, now that Van Dyke has taken the town to court.

“We’re confident that we followed all the legal requirements,” Bowles said. “We hope the judge agrees.”

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