A Second Dwelling
A Somerset selectman is facing questions about a barn/storage shed on his property that was converted into an apartment for his father-in-law. Is it legal and is it being taxed properly? It's an issue that strikes a nerve in a community where tax bills are increasing by double digits this year. Jim Hummel talks with the selectman - who is up for re-election next week - for his take on the situation.
With a three-year term under his belt, Somerset Selectman Arastou Mahjoory is running for re-election -at a time when the board faces serious financial challenges and property owners have seen a double-digit tax increase.
But Mahjoory is facing questions about his own taxes - and the piece of property where he lives: 497 Chace Street. Mahjoory lives with his wife and four children in a 2,600-square-foot house at the front of the one-acre parcel.
But it's a detached 1,470-square-foot structure his father-in-law lives in, set off the road, that had several people contacting the Hummel Report earlier this spring - questioning the use - and the assessment.
We've learned the former shed was classified by the town's tax assessor as a barn in a revaluation done in 2001. Aerial photos taken last week give a better indication of its size compared to the main house. The former barn, see here with brown roof shingles, is assessed at $17,500. The entire property is currently valued at $308,500.
While the property is actually owned by Mahjoory's father-in-law, the selectman says he pays the taxes on it.
So we asked Mahjoory about the second building after a board meeting last month.
Hummel: ``Do you live in that building? ''
Mahjoory: ``I do not live in that building.''
Hummel: ``Does anybody live in that building?''
Mahjoory: ``I do not live in that building.''
Hummel: ``Who does?''
Mahjoory: ``My father-in-law lives in that building.''
Mahjoory: ``It's a building that was there when we purchased the house.''
Hummel: ``So it was in the shape it was in when you got there?''
Mahjoory: ``Correct. That building was there.''
Hummel: ``You did no work on it at all.''
Mahjoory: ``Nope, my father-in-law put shingling on, but nothing on the interior, the water, the plumbing everything was there.''
But we got a different account from the son of the previous owner. Herman Helfenbein, a plumber who died in 2004, built the house in the late 1950s and used the shed for storage. Bernie Helfenbein says his father had a water and sewer line run up the driveway in case one of the children ever needed a place to live - but that never happened. And, he says, the water and sewer were capped when the children sold the property in the fall of 2006 - to Mahjoory's father-in-law, a year after their mother Helen died.
Hummel: ``So what year did you move in?''
Hummel: ``So it was in the shape it was in when you moved in? ''
Hummel: ``Did you find it odd that the assessment was only $17,500 on that building?''
Mahjoory: ``I have no idea, I'm not really involved in the assessment. You'd have to speak to Mr. Setters, who's on the board of assessors.''
Don Setters is a fellow selectman who is finishing up the last year of 13 years on the town's board of assessors. Full disclosure: there is no love lost between Mahjoory and Setters, who have locked horns during Setters' first year on the board. But we had questions for Setters in his role as assessor - and a fifth generation resident of Somerset.
We found Setters working in his garage one day last week.
Setters: Having two homes, two structures, two living dwellings on one lot is something that is not allowed use under our Somerset zoning bylaws.''
Setters said the town is currently undergoing a full revaluation where each house and business will be inspected to see if what's on file matches the amenities at each property.
Setters: ``Typically it picks up items that - additions on properties, improvements to residential and commercial properties, where the property owners have failed to get building permits to do the work. So there's no way the town really knows that these improvement exist.''
Mahjoory: ``I have to go to executive session. I'm not quite sure where this is coming from. I'll tell you something: I've had this conversation and I think what's happening now is you have some of your friends here, like Mr. Lebeau and others that are obviously trying to do a couple of things. But I appreciate the time.''
Lebeau is Scott Lebeau, who along with Lorne Lawless are in a three-way race with Mahjoory in the May 13 election for three-year term on the select board. And without naming them directly, Mahjoory accused us of collaborating with Setters and Lebeau to do a negative story on him.
Our investigation shows a month before the Helfenbeins sold the property the Somerset Fire Department inspected 497 Chace Street to make sure there were working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. It's an inspection mandated by the state and records we obtained from the fire department listed one dwelling unit on the property - the house.
Soares: ``It's funny it wa just a barn...nothing.''
Elsa Soares lives next door to Mahjoory and went to look at the property at an open house when it went up for sale in 2006. She was curious about the second building, the so-called barn.
Hummel: ``When you walked in, what did it look like?''
Soares: ``Empty, spacious - it's not divided like it's a house, it's basically a barn.''
Soares also said the family put up this fence as part of the improvements to the property. The only building permit we could find on file at Town Hall for any work at 497 Chace Street was a 2008 electrical upgrade permit.
On Tuesday - when we went to get video of the house - Mahjoory emerged to talk with us again.
Mahjoory: ``I don't want to talk to you because I don't think you really want to know the truth. I just think you're looking for exciting, what do you call it, animation on the internet and all that type of stuff.''
Hummel: ``But you don't know who we've talked to.''
Mahjoory: ``I do know who you've talk to.''
Hummel: ``Who have I talked to?"
Mahjoory: ``I know who you've talked to. Just like you have sources that you don't talk to, I have sources that I'm not going to divulge to you as well. If you guys just don't think I know anybody and I'm some rookie, or hillbilly from somewhere you're totally wrong. And I have my own people who know you from previous dealings that said you really don't look for the best interests of what's going on. I'm still confused on why you're here from Rhode Island.''
Mahjoory says he went to the building inspector at the time and got the okay for his father-in-law to live there, although there is no record of that at Town Hall. The building inspector has since retired and has medical issues.
Mahory: ``Listen, we haven't put any services in there - the building inspector before we bought the property said it's not an issue converting it having your in law live back there. That's the building inspector - I moved here, the building inspector.''
Hummel: ``You didn't need a variance, you didn't need...''
Mahjoory: ``Nothing. He said nothing. He said all of the services are there. Your in-laws can live there as long as there's no stove.''
Mahjoory said didn't own the house during the last revaluation.
Mahjoory: ``Did I live here 10 years ago? That's my question.''
Hummel: ``You didn't.''
Mahjoory: ``I didn't. Okay. So you should have run this story 10 years ago, I've lived here since 2006. It's 2013. Let me repeat it so you get it straight, 'cause I know you like to repeat the question. I have never connected to the water and sewer here. Is that understood. Is that clear enough or no?''
He then ended the interview.
Mhjoory: ``Jim I appreciate it, thank you for your time. You're a good man. You do good work.''
Hummel: ``Well apparently not according to you, you think I sensationlize.''
Mahjoory: ``You have. You have.''
Hummel: ``So how is that good work.''
Mahjoory: ``It is for you. I mean, you do great things in Rhode Island, I guess.''
Hummel: ``So go back to Rhode Island?''
Mahjoory: ``No, go wherever you want.''
Several hours after our interview Mahjoory called to say he wanted to talk to us again. He met us at a parking lot in Swansea, armed with an appraisal done by the Helfenbein family in 2005 indicating water, sewer and electric were all available in the barn.
Hummel: ``The people who have looked at that house, and the former owners say it was a storage shed and it was a barn. The fact is now it's a full dwelling where your father-in-law lives and it's not taxed like that. What's your answer to that?''
Mahjoory: ``The board of assessors need to get their valuation people out there quicker - if they increased the assessment, no problem. If they want to whatever. The higher the assessment on the property, the higher the resale value.''
Hummel: ``You pulled no permits to change that property. Is that correct?''
Mahjoory: ``The building inspector said it was all set.''
Hummel: ``Do you have any documentation?''
Mahjoory: ``You'd have to talk to him. I wouldn't purchase a property...''
Hummel: ``Talk to him? He's had a stroke and can't talk.''
And with that, Mahjoory said: he'd had enough.
Mahjoory: ``Jim, thank you, have a good day....''
In Somerset, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.