Sandy Lewis, center, has filed a complaint in court against the town of Essex over the assessed value of two of the six parcels that make up the Lewis Family Farm there.
The fight between the Town of Essex and the Lewis Family Farm is still playing out between lawyers, but will have a day in front of a county Board of Assessment Review.
During the May Finance Committee meeting, Charli Lewis of the Real Property Office said that the Town of Essex Grievance Day, originally scheduled for May 22, would not take place, but would take place on June 12 and be done by a county panel.
Town Supervisor Sharon Boisen said that the town was unable to form a quorum of the Board of Assessment Review.
“They were unable to meet the necessary quorum to hear grievances on May 22,” Boisen said. “Therefore, the County BAR is, by law, required to serve.”
Boisen said that no members of the BAR have resigned.
“The change in date is simply because the individuals who serve in the three positions required by law to act as the County BAR were unable to all be here on May 22,” she said.
The county BAR will be made up of Board of Supervisors Chairman Randy Douglas, Board of Supervisors Clerk Deborah Palmer and County Treasurer Michael Diskin.
Meanwhile, the legal battle over the lawsuit filed by Salim “Sandy” Lewis disputing his assessment continued, with a settlement meeting held Monday, June 4.
Boisen said that she was hopeful the town and Lewis could come up with an agreement.
“I would prefer to settle litigation outside of the courtroom, through stipulation,” she said. “This continues to be true.”
Lewis said that he felt the matter should have been resolved back when he first filed his suit but that the town’s lawyers have been stalling.
“There have been extensive delays — one might say deliberate delays — with the lead counsel, while they declared to the press that settlement will be the way to go,” Lewis said. “I think they are just trying to use up as much of the town’s war chest as possible so there will be no choice but to settle.”
Lewis also said that he wanted to address the town board as a guest on two separate occasions on the matter, but was turned away by Boisen.
Boisen said that while there is no mention on the agendas for public comment, it is offered.
“Scheduled guests are offered the floor at the beginning of each Essex Town Board meeting,” Boisen said. “Public comment has never been refused by me or the Town Board since I have been in office.”
“We have offered twice, and their response was clear,” Lewis said. “We thought our words might help what appears to be quite a mess. Speaking for myself, if they want to hear from us, they can let us know. It makes little difference to me.”
Lewis is disputing the assessment of two of six parcels that make up the Lewis Family Farm, the largest agricultural portion and his home. Lewis and his legal counsel, Martina Baillie, had previously filed a pair of grievances in the town about the assessments on the two parcels: a field crops parcel of 1,111 acres assessed at $6,033,190; and a 5.2-acre family residence assessed at $412,900.
At that time, the grievances were both taken into consideration by the town’s board of assessment review, which cut the first parcel’s assessment to $4,811,112 while leaving the second parcel’s value the same.
This year, the assessment on the larger parcel was again dropped to around $4 million during a grievance by Lewis and Baillie to the town’s assessors.
“The town assessors and leadership has come from above $6 million, to $4.8 million, to just above $4 million,” Lewis said. “Not a word about why. Silence. I think that it was an assessment prejudice.”
In response, Boisen said that she would continue to offer no comment on any pending legal issue.
Lewis also said that he had “dealings” with each of the county officials that make up the BAR.
“I do not think these guys can solve the problem,” Lewis said. “I think that they can if they bring in professional, outside services, but you cannot say you are qualified to do this because you went to a two-hour course.”
Lewis continued to say that he felt the appraisal that was done by Don Fisher, putting the parcel at $2.3 million, was too high.
“I am not going to settle for that amount because even if I did agree with the town to use this appraiser, I still feel the humber is too high,” Lewis said. “You will never sell this property for that much as a farm.”
Lewis said that, along with the suit, he is looking at other options with his farm and land.
“The wind is in our face here,” he said. “I expected that from the APA, but it appears that town is out for us as well. Everyone says that it’s OK because Sandy can afford it, but it does not work that way.”
He said that he has recently started to sell his grainery equipment along with any non-essential equipment.
“We expect to put four of our smaller properties up for sale as well,” Lewis said. “The Ritchie Brothers Auction House is working with us on the equipment that does not get used. I have never sold anything around here, but maybe it is time.”
Lewis also brought up the idea of turning the farm into a research center, thus making the property a 501c and taking it off the tax rolls.
“I have had some very preliminary discussions with some institutions about that,” he said. “Taking all of this land and taking it off the tax rolls would hurt the town and county, but I wouldn’t care one bit. If this farm does it and forms a partnership with various educational services, then we are off the rolls.
“They are not going to milk me anymore,” Lewis added. “I will take the cow out of the pasture.”