Thursday, April 3, 2008

This House Is Pooped

originally published in the Hartford Advocate May 10, 2007

This House Is Pooped

Tax assessor gives new meaning to the term "home improvement"

By Jennifer Abel

Want to double the value of your house? It’s easy: Just flood your basement with raw sewage and soak a couple hundred gallons of heating oil into the foundation. This advice sounds counterproductive — few realty agents will say, "Add some toxic waste" when you ask, "How can I make my house more valuable?" Yet, if West Hartford’s tax assessments are accurate, Linda Gilnite’s modest home nearly doubled in value after a sewer-main failure gave it the poop-and-goop treatment.

Gilnite lives with her sister and elderly mother in a tidy Cape house at the bottom of a hill on Elmfield Street. It’s a pretty place on a sunny May afternoon, with neat little houses surrounded by green springtime lawns. But it didn’t look so lovely in October 2005, when a week-long storm dropped over a foot of rain, far more than the town’s sewage system — run by the Metropolitan District Commission — could handle. So one night the sewer main belched its contents all over Elmfield Street and the houses lining it.

The droning sound of generators roused the Gilnites from sleep. "My sister got out of bed, opened the cellar door, and saw four feet of — she thought water," Gilnite recalled. "We didn’t know it was raw sewage."

The water people flush down their toilets (and whatever they added to that water beforehand) flooded Gilnite’s basement. The fire department came out to help Elmfield residents pump out their basements, but couldn’t do much for the Gilnites. "They started pumping our basement when they thought it was water, but stopped when they realized it was raw sewage."

The filthy water kept rising, completely filling Gilnite’s basement and seeping onto the first floor. And it toppled Gilnite’s heating-oil tank, so at least a hundred gallons floated atop the muck.

Gilnite is still fighting the MDC over just how much compensation she is owed. But for now, she and her family have a more immediate concern: property taxes. Last October, one year after the flood, West Hartford did a townwide reassessment to determine the taxable value of property in town. In October 2005, before the sewage flooded her basement, Gilnite’s house was assessed at $72,870, for tax purposes. By October 2006 that changed to $138,400.

But in reality: "My house is worth nothing," Gilnite said. This isn’t just her opinion; a Realtor gave her a written estimate saying the house could sell for just over $200,000 — after it’s decontaminated. Until then, there’s no point even sticking a "For Sale" sign in the yard.
So Gilnite went to town hall to appeal her case to the Board of Assessment Appeals. "The assessor kept scratching out prices," Gilnite recalled. "He said he didn’t know how much to say the house was worth."

Gilnite didn’t have a copy of this document on hand, so last week she went to town hall to get a copy. Everybody in the assessor’s office was friendly and helpful to Gilnite and any media representatives with her, but the document wasn’t in her file.

"How convenient," Gilnite said suspiciously. But half an hour later, after she’d returned home, someone called to tell her that, while the original document couldn’t be found, a scanned copy of it was available. It’s a little hard to read, the way copies of copies usually are, but you can make out the words "The house is contaminated and unsellable."

Despite this, Gilnite received a letter from the Board of Assessment Appeals on April 2, saying, "the Board has decided there will be no change to the assessment."