Assessing the Cost
Several business owners in North Kingstown say a recent sewer project - hailed as a catalyst to grow commercial activity along Post Road - is crushing them with massive assessment costs. The owner of a well-known auto body shop is facing a half-million dollar tab because North Kingstown - unlike its surrounding neighbors - is calculating the bill based on square footage of property he says is inaccessible and unusable.
The proposal was aimed at helping businesses in North Kingstown.
And in 2009, voters there approved it, giving the green light to a $10 million bond issue for sewer installation along Post Road - part of a larger project that will eventually include another section of Post Road to the north and The Wickford Business District.
Kilday: ``I thought it would be a good thing for Post Road. Post Road’s been dying, for years and years and years.’’
Gordon Kilday’s family has owned Quonset Auto Body for decades. His father moved to their current location in 2001 when the state took their property by eminent domain in the late 1990s to expand Route 403 into Quonset Point.
The Kildays had to scramble to find land and wound up here on a lot that is only a couple of hundred feet wide, but 2000 feet in from Post Road. The property in the back, which we couldn’t get to, drops off 30-40 feet into a swamp, making it virtually unusable.
Kilday: ``They call them pencil lots. My lot is a half mile long. No, we did not want all the property but it was owned by the famer that owned this land, so we had to buy the whole piece of property, then have it rezoned.’’
And that would come back to haunt Kilday when the town assessed his lot for sewers. In 2014 he received a bill for more than half a million dollars - before even hooking up to the system. That’s because North Kingstown - unlike any of the surrounding communities in Rhode Island - calculated the assessment of commercial property based on total square footage, instead of frontage along Post Road.
Kilday: ``I’m thinking how can they assess me for all of it if I can’t use it all? I can’t even get to it. I figured it was a mistake, and they were going to take the back part off and hopefully they were going to recalculate their square footage for the front and make it more reasonable because they’re running everybody off of Post Road. I mean I don’t think this was designed to help the small business in North Kingstown.’’
And Kilday is not alone.
John Becker moved to North Kingstown three years ago and was looking for property that would generate some income. So he bought these multi-family units just north of Quonset Auto Body. Same kind of lot: 200 feet wide and half a mile deep, for a total of nearly 11 acres of land.
Becker: ``Like many others I thought, well land can’t be a bad thing, but I’m learning it might be, sometimes - land is tricky.’’
Becker’s sewer assessment came in at $321,000. His land for tax purposes is valued at $286,000.
Becker: ``It’s just a shocking amount of money. It’s insane. You’re never going to get that from the land. The trees don’t pay any income, as you know. Squirrels don’t pay me any rents. And the odds of making money on this parcel are really slim.’’
Becker took us deep into his property - we needed a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there. He says heavy ledge would make development almost impossible. And there are wetlands further into the woods.
Hummel: ``Did your real estate agent or anybody say `Hey look, at some point they may be bringing in sewers here, that’s something you should factor into the equation’?”
Becker: ``We knew something was cooking. It was very preliminary, nobody really knew anything solid. The numbers that they had were all over the map and we didn’t really know. And it was a bit of a chance. But we decided that cooler heads must prevail at some point. And we decided, it can’t be that bad.’’
Hummel: ``And it was.’’
Becker: "And it was."
Becker, Kilday and the owner of the Pagoda Inn, between them, have hired an attorney to appeal. But this is new territory for the town: the vast majority of North Kingstown has no sewers, so the town council is going to act as the appeals board - the first time it has had to do so.
The town so far has billed Kilday $60,000, but pushed off the payment date until next year.
Hummel: ``Where are you going to come up with $60,000?’’
Kilday: ``I don’t know. I don’t know.’’
Hummel: ``That arrives in the mail, and you open it up. What goes through your mind?’’
Kilday: ``What the heck am I going to do now? How the heck are we going to survive this storm?’’
Council President Kerry McKay tells The Hummel Report he is hesitant to speak in detail with us about the situation because he and his fellow council members will ultimately decide the appeal sometime this fall.
Kilday: ``The issue is they’re assessing me on the whole piece of property that I could never even get back there to develop that. We did a cost analysis: what it would cost to cross the wetlands and put sewers back there and it’s more that the land and the building and the whole piece of property are worth.’’
What complicates it is that Kilday says the rear portion of his property was rezoned - without his knowledge - several years ago from residential to commercial, putting it in a higher category for assessment.
Residential units are assessed at $18,500 each.
But commercial land owners have to pay 87 cents per square foot.
Kilday: ``I didn’t even realize that my back lot at that time had been rezoned. I had never gotten a notification in the mail, at all, never saw anything in the paper - even if it was in the paper, which I was told it was, you can’t even tell what these things are.’’
Hummel: ``So they rezoned it without you knowing?’’
Kilday: ``I never got a letter notifying we were being rezoned.’’
That too, will be part of his appeal.
The state legislation authorizing the bond contained wording that says, in part: ``Such assessments shall be just and equitable and shall be based upon frontage or area within a specified reasonable distance from the street….or other equitable method….as may be determined by the town council.’’
It also says the council can make adjustments.
Hummel: ``What are you looking for from the town?’’
Becker: ``Looking for a reasonable assessment. I mean I understand it costs money to build sewers and I understand it’s not cheap, but the way things are working right now they’re really unfairly penalizing these massive lots that are not that useful.’’
Kilday: ``It was a townwide vote but the landowners on the section that the sewer was put in have to pay for the whole assessment. When you add myself, Pagoda Inn and John Becker’s we’re over a million dollars on a $9 million section, so three of us are footing the bill for a good chunk of it. I run a clean business, I don’t have any trouble with the town. I don’t have any complaints against me. I employ 32 people here and when we built this place I believe we set the standard for Post Road. We landscaped it, we set it back, we made it look nice. We conformed with everything the town wanted and now we’re being put under this tremendous burden under a sewer assessment that we can’t afford
Hummel: ``This interview was a last report for you, was it not? The last thing you want to be doing is sitting in front of a camera.’’
Kilday: ``I told you: I fly under the radar, I don’t like to make waves - I don’t like to fight with people, I like to come to work and do my job and I like to go home and enjoy my family. So I didn’t want to go in front of a camera. I didn’t want to write a letter to the editor. But I’ve been backed into a corner - I don’t have any choice. Because I don’t know what else to do.’’
In North Kingstown, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report