Laconia presents lawmakers with other side of campground trailer taxation issue

CONCORD — City officials appeared before the House Municipal and County Government Committee at the Statehouse yesterday in opposition to legislation —Senate Bill 333 — that would exempt from property taxes recreational vehicles stored or placed on a rented campsite at a recreational campground or camping park year around.

In January, SB-333 carried the Senate by a unanimous vote of 24 to 0. Nevertheless, a crowd of more than 150, dominated by campground owners, filled the committee room to overflowing for the hearing that ran for almost two-and-a-half hours.

After the Senate passed the bill officials in Laconia and Bristol were quick to raise concerns. Jon Duhamel, the city assessor, has counted 423 recreational vehicles parked at a dozen campgrounds year around with an aggregate assessed value of $9,994,500. They have been taxed for years, but would become exempt from property tax if the bill were enacted. He estimates that the city would forgo more than $220,000 in revenue, which would add 10 cents to the property tax rate.

At Bristol Shores there are 183 recreational vehicles with a total value of nearly $8 million representing some $160,000 revenue, in foregone revenue to the town.

The statutory definition of a recreational vehicle includes motor homes, vans, pickup campers and tent trailers as well as recreational trailers of 400 square feet or less. The definition includes so-called "park models," which may be 12-feet and 36-feet long with pitched roofs and gabled windows that resemble miniature cottages with room to sleep as many as 10 people. Unlike other recreational vehicles, park models cannot be registered as motor vehicles or transported on public roads without a special permit.

The issue of taxation arose in the wake of two court decisions. In 1999, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that a truck trailer could be assessed and taxed as a building "if by its use it:  (1) is intended to be more or less permanent, not a temporary structure;  (2) is more or less completely enclosed;  (3) is used as a dwelling, storehouse, or shelter;  and (4) is intended to remain stationary." Two years later the Belknap County Superior Court applied this standard to eight trailers at the Hack-Ma-Tack Campground at The Weirs, confirming the city's authority to tax eight trailers on the property as buildings.
On the strength of the court decisions, the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration (DRA) urged municipalities to apply the criteria strictly. Some, like Laconia did, but others found the cost of assessing the units and billing their owners, many of whom reside outside the state, outweighed the revenue collected.
Sen. Jeanie Forrester (R-Meredith) introduced the legislation at the request of the New Hampshire Campground Owners Association, whose members, together with some municipal officials, were troubled by the inconsistent application of the law. Some are taxed as real estate while others are not. Some municipalities bill the owners of the recreational vehicles while others, unable to identify the owners, bill the owners of the campgrounds.

The bill was intended to mend what Forrester called a "crazy quilt" and introduce consistency in the treatment of recreational vehicles by local assessors by clearly distinguishing them from "manufactured housing" and simply exempting those in campgrounds from property taxation.

However, in response to the concerns expressed by Laconia and Bristol, an amendment, crafted by the Henry Veilleux, the lobbyist representing the campground owners and sponsored by Representatives Jeffery Shackett (R-Bristol) and James Belanger (R-Hollis), was presented to the House committee yesterday.

Veilleux told the committee that the amendment would exempt only those recreational vehicles less than eight-feet, six inches in width, leaving all wider units liable to property taxation, effectively authorizing municipalities to tax only the "park models," which represent the bulk of the assessed valuation of recreational vehicles. He estimated that the amendment would enable Laconia to recapture at $6,568,000, or 66 percent, of the assessed valuation. The amendment would leave all the units at Bristol Shores taxable.
Mayor Ed Engler of Laconia described the goal of exempting recreational vehicles as "admirable," insisting that "Laconia does not tax recreational vehicles and no one else should either." However, he said that the bill, by exempting units permanently situated on campsites from taxation, turned campgrounds into "safe harbors."
Distributing photographs of recreational vehicles embellished with porches and decks sitting on landscaped sites and surrounded by outbuildings, Engler said "these are not intended to be moved." He read from the ruling in the Hack-ma-Tack case, where the judge held "these trailers are more akin to a summer camp dwelling than to a camper intended for travel. A summer camp dwelling is a building."
Engler recommended that the committee revisit the definition of a campground, questioning whether it was intended to apply to recreational vehicles that were improved and never moved.
City Manager Scott Myers said that while the city "appreciated the amendment," it would still leave $3.5 million in property tax revenue on the table. He explained that the city does not tax any recreational vehicle registered as a motor vehicle or trailer or an unregistered recreational vehicle that has been moved within six months.
"We have had very few complaints in Laconia," Myers said, implying that the city has complied with the court decisions without encountering the issues that appear to have bedevilled relationships between local assessors and campground owners in other municipalities.
For example, Neal Cass, the town administrator in Hopkinton, said that it is difficult to identify and track the owners of recreational vehicles in order to bill and collect property taxes, especially when units change hands, since no deed is recorded.
Kevin LeCasse of New Hampton, who owns a campground in Effingham , said the local assessor handed him a stack of tax bills for the owners of recreational vehicles in his campground, expecting him to collect the taxes. When the owners questioned their bills, he said they approach him, not the town officials who assessed the property and prepared the bills. Moreover, state law stipulates that the owner of the campground may be assessed for the taxes left unpaid by the owner the recreational vehicle left on the property.
Robert Bradley of Epsom was among several campground owners who feared that taxing recreational vehicles left on campsites year round would have adverse impacts on their individual businesses and the tourist industry. One owner said that he lost a quarter of of his seasonal campers when the property tax was first levied.
Sylvia Leggett of Robert's Knoll Campground in Alton, said that allowing campers to store their vehicles was part of her business plan, but since the town began taxing recreational vehicles she had begun to fear losing her customer base.
Joe Lessard of Municipal Resources, Inc. hearkened back to the comparison with a summer camp, cautioning the committee that the bill, with or without the amendment, would lead to "inequitable treatment of similarly used properties," a constitutional question. He conceded there was some confusion in administering the tax as directed by court, but said the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration is seeking to resolve the problems. He recommended the committee report the bill "inexpedient to legislate."