Yarmouth lawmaker revives legislation for disaster tax relief

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YARMOUTH — Almost two years after an explosion on Gables Drive left one person dead and destroyed the homes of many others, a local state representative is again trying to ease the financial burden faced by the property owners.

State Rep. Janice Cooper, D-Yarmouth, has submitted a bill that would allow property tax abatements for destroyed property. She submitted similar legislation last year, too, but it failed in committee and in the House of Representatives.

“I hope that this time the outcome is different,” Cooper said. “It makes sense that you don’t tax something that doesn’t exist.”

The disaster struck on June 25, 2013, when a propane tank exploded just after 6 a.m. at 50 Gables Drive, in the Gables North Condominium Association. The home was destroyed and resident Peter Corey, 66, was killed.

Several surrounding homes were also destroyed or damaged, displacing many residents.

But although their homes were unlivable, the owners still had to make full payments each month. Only last November did the town offer a tax break, reducing tax bills by one-third.

“We paid full taxes for a hole in the ground, which we didn’t appreciate,” Bruce MacKay, of 52 Gables Drive, said this week.

Cooper’s legislation (LD 1055, “An Act to Allow a Municipality to Abate Taxes Assessed on Property that is Destroyed”) applies to property destroyed by a fire, explosion, or natural disaster that “reduces the just value of the improvements on the property by at least 50 percent.”

The bill, which hasn’t had a hearing yet, would reduce the tax bill to zero. Owners of destroyed houses would still need to pay taxes on their land, but not on the damaged or destroyed structures.

Bruce and Rosemary MacKay, who moved eight times after their house was destroyed, were able to move back home the week before Christmas. They said they appreciate how Cooper has been working to help them.

“Janice is a tremendous help,” Bruce MacKay said. “She, on her own initiative, took it on herself to help a group of Yarmouth residents who were in trouble.”

Cooper said that although she didn’t personally know anyone affected by the explosion, she wanted to help.

“They’re practically neighbors and it felt so wrong,” she said.

MacKay said he hopes Cooper’s bill passes so no one else has to go through what he and his neighbors have endured.

“In my opinion, the law should be changed,” he said. “If your house is destroyed and all that’s left is a hole in the ground, how can anyone justify paying the whole tax burden in that situation?”

Mary Halsey, who lived in the house next door 50 Gables Drive, said she also feels like she was paying for a hole in the ground. She had only been living in her home two days when it was destroyed.

Halsey said while she appreciates the tax break from the town, she wishes Yarmouth had offered it immediately following the explosion.

“I felt from the beginning we should have gotten some relief,” she said.

Halsey said it was a struggle to make tax payments on top of all the other costs she faced.

“There are so many other expenses you don’t expect and having to pay taxes on something that doesn’t exist is difficult,” she said.

Halsey said Cooper’s support has been appreciated.

“It’s really reassuring to know that the person representing you is so persistent,” she said.

If passed without changes, Cooper’s bill would also apply retroactively to April 2013. Halsey and the MacKay’s said this would be very helpful.

“That would be great if we didn’t have to pay for June 25 (2013) through the following year’s tax date,” Bruce MacKay said.

“It would help us going forward,” Rosemary MacKay added.

Cooper said her bill, which would go into effect by September, would still require the Gables Drive residents to request tax abatements from the town.

She said it’s wrong that Yarmouth has been making the owners of the destroyed homes pay taxes.

“I think it’s a monumental act of unfairness,” she said.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Sidebar Elements

Rosemary and Bruce MacKay, who moved back into their rebuilt Yarmouth home in December, are among owners of destroyed homes who are hoping for tax relief.

The MacKay’s home was destroyed when a propane tank in the adjoining condiminium exploded on June 25, 2013.

I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.