Jim Kenyon: A Corny Tax Issue

Adele Patch’s hilltop home in Lebanon is surrounded by a neighboring farmer’s cornfields. On the dirt road leading to her house, you’re more apt to meet a tractor than a car. It’s as though Patch, a widow who turns 82 on Saturday, is living in a giant corn maze.

Which raises the question: What impact, if any, should being boxed in by cornfields have on the value of Patch’s house and three-acre lot?

Patch has argued for the last few years that the city’s assessment — $297,700 since 2010 — was too high. When the city wouldn’t budge, Patch took her case to the state Board of Tax and Land Appeals.

Two weeks ago, the state board ruled in Patch’s favor, reducing her assessment by nearly $25,000 to $272,900.

As a result, she’s entitled to a partial refund, plus interest, of property taxes that she’s paid since 2010. The city has yet to calculate how much it owes Patch, but by my math it’s around $2,000. (Patch was paying roughly $7,200 a year in property taxes and the state appeals board reduced her assessment by 8.3 percent.)

In the overall scheme of things, Patch’s refund isn’t a lot of money. But anytime an elderly widow takes on city hall, and comes out ahead? It’s a reminder that the system still works, at least sometimes.

It’s also testament to Patch’s spunk and energy. When I arrived at her house on 10 o’clock last Saturday morning, she was getting ready to take eight loaves of homemade bread out of the oven. Stacked next to the stove were more than a dozen jars of jam, which she had made a day earlier, using some of the 148 quarts of raspberries she had picked on Eastman Hill this summer.

But baking bread, making jam and picking berries are hobbies. Patch is best known as a national award winning quilter. She has two sewing machines and enough fabric neatly tucked away in her closets and basement to run a small textile mill.

And she still finds time to mow her lawn.

To get a better idea of how Adele Patch came to live in the middle of a cornfield you have to go back nearly 250 years when a traveling evangelist named Wetherall Hough started farming the ridge above the new Lebanon Middle School. In the 1940s, Hough’s descendants, Wallace Patch and his two sons, Don and Howard, took charge of the 600 acre family dairy farm. (Taking the first three letters of each other their names, they came up with Walhowdon Farm.)

In August 1952, a young Don Patch was strolling around a fair in Haverhill, where 20-year-old Adele Rose Boudreau, of Woodsville, had entered a women’s milking contest. She won the contest and Don Patch’s heart.

They married three months later. Although she spent 20 years as a waitress at Lander’s, a former Lebanon dining institution, Patch was most at home on the farm.

“I can deliver a calf, castrate a pig and cut down a tree,” she told me.

Walhowdon Farm became a “nationally known developer of elite strains of Holstein dairy cattle,” wrote former New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor in a 1994 story for this paper.

Don and Adele built their house that is now surrounded by corn in the early 1990s. A few years later, Don granted easements to the couple’s property to the farm.

In its decision, the state Board of Tax and Land Appeals made reference to the easements that “allow farm vehicles to park and drive across the ‘existing gravel access drive’ on the property for ‘general agricultural purposes’ and to plant and grow crops and graze animals on ‘the existing fields’ located on the property.”

Over the years, members of the farm family have gone their separate ways. Adele Patch said her husband came to regret signing off on the easements, which give the farm’s tractors, used to haul and spread manure, access to the road leading to the couple’s house. Patch said a lawyer once told her that because of the easements, her relatives who now operate the farm “could plant right up to your foundation if they wanted to.”

After her husband died in 2003 at age 76, Patch began thinking about her future on the property.

“Nobody would buy this house with these easements,” she concluded.

She asked the city to consider the negative impact the easements had on her property’s market value. Chief Assessor Dave McMullen made several visits to the house, which offers stunning views of the mountains, including Pico, across the river.

“I could empathize with her situation, but I have to keep my business hat on,” McMullen told me this week.

A friend recommended that Patch talk with lawyer Bill Clauson, who had a practice in Hanover. At their two-hour meeting, Patch gave Clauson a jar of her homemade jam. After Clauson agreed to take her case, she asked him how much it would cost.

Picking up the jar of jam, he replied, “This will cover it.”

At the appeals board hearing in Concord, Patch told her story and showed photographs of the property. Apparently, the board took notice.

“In particular, the testimony of Adele Patch was quite credible that the farming operations enabled by the easements adversely impact living conditions on the property,” the board wrote in its decision.

McMullen told me that Patch can expect her tax refund from the city in short order.

Sometimes, it pays to fight city hall.