NH official says owners can't ignore camper tax
The ripples might soon reach campers elsewhere, too.
“What towns are taxing campers and what towns aren't shouldn't be a question,” said Steve Hamilton, director of the Property Appraisal Division of the state's Department of Revenue Administration (DRA). “They all should, if the camper meets four requirements laid out by the superior court. It's the law.”
The court decision Hamilton cited was the result of a dispute over a tax bill issued in 2000 to the owners of the Hack-Ma-Tack Campground in Laconia. Donald and Carol Latour asserted that 15 trailers on their site were wrongfully taxed as buildings.
They asked the town for an abatement, but were denied, so they took their case to court.
In 2002, the court ruled the trailers could be taxed as buildings because they met the following criteria: They were more or less permanently located; they were used as dwellings, storage houses (i.e., sheds) or shelters; they were more or less completely enclosed; and they were intended to remain stationary.
The criteria were established in a May 1999 state Supreme Court ruling in the case of Preston v. the Town of Pelham, in which the court ruled that trailers could be assessed as buildings.
“Those are the criteria that should be used by all assessors in the state when determining whether or not to tax a camper as a building,” said Hamilton. “If it does, then it should be taxed.”
Campers at sites in Hopkinton, Henniker, Deering and other communities are upset with bills they received this year, some exceeding $1,000.
In calls made last week to communities with campgrounds, some tax officials said they have been adhering to the law for years.
“We started around 2003, just after we became aware of the court decision about Laconia,'' said Conway Assessor Tom Holmes. “From what I understand, there isn't a choice whether you tax them or you don't. You do. It's the law. We don't have any uproar here.”
Some towns have not followed suit.
“We are not taxing them now,” said Meredith Assessor James Commerford. “We are aware that other communities are doing it, but it has been a choice by the community not to. But there's more information out there about it now, and it seems like DRA is looking into it more. Any decision to start taxing them would come from the Board of Selectmen.”
And other communities are following the court decision — to a point.
“Yes we do, and no we don't (tax them),” said Ellen White, the assessing clerk for Ossipee. “We send tax bills to owners of the RV if it meets two criteria — if a permanent structure has been added onto the camper that renders it immovable, like a deck, or if it surpasses 320 square feet of living space. Otherwise, we don't send them one.”
Raymond Tax Collector Sharon Wills said the town requires “RVs that enter campgrounds here to be registered as a vehicle, so they wouldn't be taxed as a home.''
An employee in the Tax Collector's Office in Carroll Town Hall, which handles tax bills for Twin Mountain area campsites, said simply that they do not send tax bills to RV owners.
Hamilton said there are 235 taxable jurisdictions in the state, and DRA trusts that municipalities are taxing property “in a fair and equitable manner.” DRA does monitor situations by reading media accounts of decisions made at the local level to determine whether his department needs to inform community officials about the law.
“That's when we would make a visit, like the one I made to Henniker,” said Hamilton. “One of our duties is to educate and assist with taxing real estate. We want to make sure that all real estate in a community is taxed appropriately.”
Hamilton gave that tutorial to the Henniker Board of Selectmen on Oct. 18, 2011, according to minutes of the meeting.
Hamilton said he's not surprised by the outrage expressed by the Henniker campers. What does surprise him, he said, is they hadn't been taxed these past 10 years.
The question of whether to tax remains for some.
“If the decision is made to start taxing them, we would coordinate an effort to educate the campground owners on the law,” said Commerford. “We would want to give people notice of what we're doing. I wouldn't want that notice to be a tax bill.”
Henniker Town Administrator Charles Connell said he sympathizes with the campers in his community, but the town has no choice.
“I don't like the ill will this is causing among our seasonal residents. I would be upset, as well, if I were getting a bill for the first time for something I had been doing for years.”
Added Connell: “People think we are only doing it for the money. The town isn't getting much out of this, compared to the potential loss of business over it. We're not doing it for the tax dollars. We're doing it because it's the law. I hope the Legislature takes up this issue.”
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Paul Feely may be reached at email@example.com.
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