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Appeal of Town of Belmont

Supreme Court of New Hampshire

March 19, 2019

APPEAL OF TOWN OF BELMONT (New Hampshire Board of Tax and Land Appeals)

          Argued: January 8, 2019

          Mitchell Municipal Group, P.A., of Laconia (Laura Spector-Morgan on the brief and orally), for the petitioner.

          Law Office of Joshua L. Gordon, of Concord (Joshua L. Gordon on the brief and orally), for the respondent.

          BASSETT, J.

         The petitioner, the Town of Belmont, appeals a decision of the New Hampshire Board of Tax and Land Appeals (BTLA) that, pursuant to RSA 72:36-a (2012), the respondent, the Robin M. Nordle 2013 Trust, is entitled to a 100% real estate tax exemption for a homestead in Belmont. RSA 72:36-a provides that a person who meets certain qualifications set forth in the statute, and "who owns a specially adapted homestead which has been acquired with the assistance of the Veterans Administration," qualifies for a property tax exemption. We affirm.

         The material facts are not in dispute. Louis Nordle served during the Vietnam War as a member of the United States Air Force. He was honorably discharged in 1969. In 1998, Louis and his wife, Robin Nordle, purchased a summer camp in Belmont. In 2007, the Nordles demolished the original home and built a new home. The house was later transferred to the Robin M. Nordle 2013 Trust, the "taxpayer" in this case. Louis has a life estate in the trust and Robin is the trustee. In 2015, the United States Department of Veterans Affairs determined that Louis is totally and permanently disabled due to his service-connected disabilities. In 2016, Louis received a "Specially Adapted Housing Grant" from the Veterans Administration (VA) in the amount of $73, 768, and used the funds to modify his home to accommodate his service-connected disability, by widening the doors, raising and leveling the floors, installing access ramps, and remodeling the bathroom.

         In 2017, the taxpayer applied to the town for an exemption from property taxes pursuant to RSA 72:36-a. The town denied the application, determining that the "home was not 'acquired' or 'purchased' by or with the assistance of a VA loan." The town informed the Nordles that "the VA is providing a grant to adapt the home for Mr. Nordle's disabilities, however the statute regarding this exemption states that the property must be acquired with the assistance of the VA, which you have advised us it was not." In making its determination, the town relied upon advice from the New Hampshire Department of Revenue that, in order to be entitled to the property tax exemption, the VA "had to help 'purchase' the home not adapt it."

         The taxpayer appealed to the BTLA. Following a hearing, the BTLA determined that the taxpayer's property is entitled to the full property tax exemption, disagreeing with the town's position that the statutory phrase "acquired with the assistance of the Veterans Administration" is limited to assistance with the purchase of the property. The BTLA reasoned that "the word 'acquired' in the statute has a plain meaning broader than simply 'purchased' (as in the purchase of a house with specially adapted improvements financed by a VA loan or mortgage)," and that because Louis "obtained, and is now in possession of, a specially adapted homestead . . . only because of the financial assistance he received from the VA," the taxpayer is entitled to the tax exemption set forth in RSA 72:36-a. As support for its conclusion, the BTLA referred to the "Grant Fact Sheet" for the VA's Specially Adapted Housing grant program that states that VA assistance is available to veterans who "may remodel an existing home if it can be made suitable for specially adapted housing." The BTLA determined that "[c]learly the improvements to the homestead" made by the Nordles satisfy this condition.

         The town unsuccessfully moved for reconsideration. In denying the town's motion, the BTLA emphasized that

[i]t would be illogical and an unnecessary hardship . . . to require a veteran to relocate in order to qualify for an exemption intended by the legislature to benefit one who is totally and permanently disabled due to his military service to our country . . . who needs to live in a specially adapted homestead because of his disabilities as determined by the Veterans Administration and after satisfying all of its requirements for financial assistance to accomplish this purpose.

(Parentheses omitted.) This appeal followed.

         RSA 72:36-a, titled "Certain Disabled Veterans," provides:

Any person, who is discharged from military service of the United States under conditions other than dishonorable, or an officer who is honorably separated from military service, who is totally and permanently disabled from service connection and satisfactory proof of such service connection is furnished to the assessors and who is a double amputee of the upper or lower extremities or any combination thereof, paraplegic, or has blindness of both eyes with visual acuity of 5/200 or less as the result of service connection and who owns a specially adapted homestead which has been acquired with the assistance of the Veterans Administration or which has been acquired using proceeds from the sale of any previous homestead which was acquired with the assistance of the Veterans Administration, the person or person's surviving spouse, shall be exempt from all taxation on said homestead.

RSA 72:36-a (bolding omitted; emphasis added); see RSA 72:29, VI (Supp. 2018) (providing that, for purposes of RSA 72:36-a, "the ownership of real estate, as expressed by such words as 'owner,' 'owned' or 'own,' shall include those who have placed their property in a grantor/revocable trust or who have ...


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