Aldercrest residents want a bigger tax break

By Don Jenkins The Daily News

The 11 homeowners left in the slide-ruined Aldercrest subdivision argued Tuesday that they should pay a token amount of property taxes until the abandoned houses blighting their neighborhood are removed.

But Cowlitz County Assessor Dean Takko asserted that the remaining houses are still worth something and homeowners should pay one-quarter of the taxes they paid before the slide began in 1998.

Takko and the Kelso homeowners presented their sides at a hearing before the county Board of Equalization, which settles assessment disputes before citizens and the assessor. The board will rule later.

If the homeowners prevail, they can expect to save hundreds of dollars on their tax bills next year --- up to about $870 in one case.

The homes are undamaged and are the only ones still occupied in a 137-house subdivision, which has been declared a federal disaster area.

A geologist predicted two years ago that all of the homes in the subdivision would be uninhabitable within five years. But the 11 Banyon Drive residents stayed and turned down a government offer to buy them out for 37 percent of their homes' value.

The homes now sit alongside unoccupied homes in varying stages of destruction or dismantling. Signs tell visitors to stay away, and police departments use the neighborhood for tactical training.

The city of Kelso plans to start cleaning up the neighborhood this winter. But homeowners say that until the eyesores are gone, there won't be a market for their houses, and their property should be assessed at salvage value.

"You drive into the area, and it looks like we're in a war zone," Banyon Drive resident John Silliman said. "We would have no objection to paying taxes if we had an area that was presentable.

"I'm sure rentals are an impossibility and selling a home is an impossibility."

But Takko said homeowners helped set a value by rejecting the 37 percent buyout. In one case, a homeowner rejected a $133,877 buyout and is appealing a $68,900 assessment.

"If you turned down that 37 (percent) ... how can you say it's not worth at least 25?"

But Banyon Drive resident Jodi Spahman questioned the logic of using the buyout offer to appraise houses in Aldercrest. After all, she said, the slide-destroyed homes were clearly not worth the money the government offered.

Takko also argued that a handful of homes in the Haussler Road area, a slide-damaged neighborhood on the other side of the hill from Aldercrest, have sold recently for more than 25 percent of their pre-slide value.

Also, one of the 11 Banyon Drive homeowners has rented his house for $1,000 a month.

"How can you justify something that's generating $1,000 a month income is only worth $3,000 or $4,000?" Takko asked.

Banyon Drive resident Mel Jewell said the rented house is a special case. The renter built the house, moved away, came back and wanted to rent what he built.

Jewell said homeowners will be happy to pay taxes when the value of their homes rebound. But that won't happen until the neighborhood gets cleaned up, he said.

"It would be untimely to raise our taxes."

Spahman said Aldercrest shouldn't be compared to Haussler Road, which isn't a federal disaster area and doesn't have the notoriety. "We're being subjected to a lot of things that make us different than the area we're being compared to," she said.