When faced with deciding to continue or effectively conclude litigation over a tax dispute between the town and property-owner Wayne Cooke, the voted during a highly charged portion of its to prolong the court battle. The decision teetered on the weight of fiscal and procedural arguments. Procedure won.
“There’s nothing I would rather do than put this to an end,” said Selectman Francis Walsh. However, he said, “I don’t think this board has the authority” to end the matter. “I think this should be decided on both sides in the courts.”
Conversely, Selectman John Opie sought to end the litigation by proposing that Cooke-owned properties now regarded as two separate parcels be considered one unit. That would have conjoined the Red Hill Road parcel in question with 573 E. Main St. property, which would allow the Red Hill Road grounds to be taxed as farmland. The two parcels were part of the same larger unit decades ago, before highway construction severed continuity.
Opie suggested that the board “lump it [the Red Hill Road property] with the original farm parcel – 573 – and let its fate ride with the fate of 573 and avoid all this court cost.”
Opie proposed a motion to do just that.
Before the vote was taken, Opie argued that in accordance with CT PA 490 guidelines, the Red Hill Road parcel should be classified as farmland. “PA 490 very clearly states such a property would be considered a part of the farm unit,” he said. “I don’t see it as separable, as we’ve done.”
He also argued that the litigation had already cost Branford taxpayers an inordinate amount in legal costs and would continue to do so during the appeals process – up to some $40,000, he estimated. With a tax return on the disputed property about $3,400 a year, it would take at least a decade to recoup town court costs, Opie said.
Walsh said his concern was that the board would be circumventing legal due process, as well as encroaching on the assessor’s jurisdiction. The assessor, not the Board of Selectmen, “has the responsibility to determine whether something is farmland or is not farmland,” said Walsh, adding that he believes it is important that the selectmen support the assessor and the Board of Appeals.
“I have some qualms, I really do,” Walsh said. “I don’t want to try it here.”
Cooke stood by his decision to take legal action against the town, but acknowledged that he has been swamped by attorney’s fees. He became visibly shaken as the discussion progressed and it became apparent that the vote probably would not result in his favor. He lambasted what he called the board’s concern with “irrelevant facts” and made reference to an ongoing animosity between himself and First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos.
“This is all a vindictive action based upon my criticism of his [DaRos’] administration,” said Cooke, who called DaRos “a mean and vindictive person.”
After all parties voiced their opinions, the vote was taken on Walsh’s motion to consider the Red Hill Road and 573 E. Main St. parcels as one connected unit of farmland. The motion was rejected, with Opie voting in favor of the measure, and Walsh and DaRos voting against it.