Former School Committee member files lawsuit against Woonsocket over tax burden

Former School Committee member files lawsuit against Woonsocket over tax burden

In a photo of Christopher Roberts’ home taken around 1910, his great-grandfather Joseph Keenan stands with his father-in-law. The property is being taxed as a multifamily because of a small structure in back that was once used to house farm help and animals, and Roberts has filed a lawsuit stating it should qualify for the single family homestead exemption.

WOONSOCKET – Christopher Roberts says his great-great-grandmother purchased the home he now owns at 507 Rhodes Ave. in the 1880s.

Three generations of the family currently live there, with his grandparents making their home in a small building out back. That structure at one time was used to house hired farm help, as well as animals, according to Roberts.

“It passed from my great-great-grandmother to my great-grandfather, to my grandparents, and I purchased it a few years ago,” he said.

A Colonial farmhouse now situated on 1.5 acres, the property once held a 16-acre farm where the family also ran a raw milk business.

The property is being taxed as a multi-family, a decision by the city’s current tax assessor that Roberts argues is in conflict with the city’s own comprehensive plan.

City officials, meanwhile, point out that the property holds two structures, and argue it should be taxed as such.

Roberts, who served as a member of the Woonsocket School Committee from 2011 to 2013, has filed a lawsuit against the city over the issue. In a petition for relief filed in Superior Court in May, he and wife, Jessica Roberts, are disputing the validity of tax bills city records show total nearly $10,000.

They’re being represented by attorney Melissa Horne with the Providence firm Higgins, Cavanagh and Cooney.

The dispute is based in the city’s current view of the detached “accessory dwelling unit,” a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom building Roberts notes is not visible from the road.

Roberts says he went to see former Woonsocket Tax Assessor Chris Celeste shortly after he purchased the property in 2013 to see how he could qualify for the city’s single-family homestead exemption, a tax break meant to encourage more families to purchase property in the city and to live in the buildings they own.

“I was advised that it required approval from the Zoning Board of Review and received the required approvals,” he said.

In 2014, city records show the exemption was applied and taxes for the Roberts, which were at $8,059 the year before, dropped to $7,382.

But the following year, the city hired a new tax assessor, Elyse Pare, and the exemption was removed.

“She arbitrarily removed my single-family homestead without any notice, stating that she ‘taxes what she sees,’ and is fixated on the fact that there are two separate structures,” Roberts said.

In 2015, he received a bill for $9,855 reflecting the city’s view that it should be classified as a multi-family home and not qualify for the 30 percent single-family exemption.

Roberts made his case earlier this month before the City Council.

“I would argue that this is not good government and that the rules cannot change every time a new person is appointed,” he said.

City officials note they can say little on the issue due to the ongoing litigation.

“The new assessor made a decision,” said Solicitor John DeSimone. “It’s not clear-cut one way or another. It will be worked out in the normal course of things.”

It’s litigation Roberts says he wishes he could have avoided. He says he met with Pare in hopes to work out the issue, then appealed to former Solicitor Michael Marcello, spoke before the Board of Assessment Review, and eventually met with DeSimone, after the new solicitor was appointed at the start of this year.

He argues that his situation, where six generations have enjoyed the property for 150 years, represents the very purpose of the city’s homestead law.

“If my situation isn’t the exact reason the concept of the homestead exists, then I throw the towel in,” he said.

He notes that his great-grandmother lived in the accessory building before his grandparents moved there.

“It is truly a win-win, as they are and were hardworking people,” he said. “I think they would agree that the maintenance of the property and basically skyrocketing taxes would have proved insurmountable for them to remain there alone.”

He points out that his grandmother has never lived anywhere else.

“My daughter can walk 20 feet out the back door of my kitchen to see her great-grandparents, a one-of-a-kind living arrangement that I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Roberts said.

The lawsuit notes that the city of Woonsocket incorporated the development of accessory dwelling units in its 2012 Comprehensive Plan.

“The accessory dwelling originally was used as a barn in which horses and stable boys were housed prior to it being occupied by Christopher Roberts’ great-grandparents and, subsequently, his grandparents,” the petition states. “The principal residence and the (accessory dwelling unit) share water and electrical lines and a single driveway, and are situated on the property so that the accessory unit is not visible from the street.”

“The city’s own comprehensive plan states a desire to ‘expand opportunities for the creation of in-law apartments as a means of providing options for extended family members to reside there,’” Roberts said.

City Councilor Richard Fagnant asked Roberts if he believed he’d been singled out for application of the higher tax. Roberts had the vocal support of former Mayor Leo Fontaine when Roberts first ran for the school board in 2011. He was removed from the board after the city changed to an appointed committee.

“I would simply say that the change happened quite arbitrarily with the change in assessor,” Roberts replied. “Never in a million years did I think I would be forced to file a suit against my city, a city I also have proudly served, over a reason such as this.”

“Based on the information you provided tonight, you went through the proper channels and were approved,” Fagnant said. “To change that so drastically bothers me.”

DeSimone, however, says “there was no singling out.”

“It is in court,” he said of the conflict. “Zoning doesn’t set the tax structure.”