Legislature okays Warwick real estate transfer tax

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:50

    WARWICK-Warwick residents may soon have the opportunity to decide whether to impose a real estate transfer tax on most property transactions that could generate as much as $200,000 annually for open space. Last week, the state Legislature approved a bill that would allow the town to charge a 0.75 percent impact fee on all real estate transactions with the proceeds going into the town's open space preservation fund. It now goes to Gov. George Pataki, who is expected to sign it. If he does, residents would vote on whether to impose the tax this November. "I think it's terrific," said Supervisor Michael Sweeton. "Our goal would be to get a referendum in place by the November election." An 2003 analysis showed that the town could realize about $280,000 if a 1 percent tax was imposed. "It is not a lot in the whole scheme of things, but over five or 10 years, it can definitely help preserve the town's open space," said Sweeton. Some details remain to be worked out, so it's hard to determine what the impact the transfer tax would have on buyers. For instance, there might be an exemption on family transactions. The first $150,000 on the price of a house also could be exempt. If that's the case, the .75 percent transfer tax would only apply to $200,000 on the sale of a $350,000 house, The transfer tax would then amount to $1,500. Orange County Board of Elections Commissioner Susan Bahren said the town has until Oct. 3 to get propositions on the November ballot. Mayor Michael Newhard shared Sweeton's enthusiasm for the referendum. "It allows us to go to the people of our community and ask ‘Can we create this local transfer tax for money to go for open space?' Other communities do it. It's been proven. Buyers would pay their share of what we worked so hard for," the mayor said. Town voters approved a $9.5 million Purchase of Development Rights program in 2000 to supplement state and federal PDR programs to buy the development rights of farms and other open space. Communities in Suffolk County impose a 2 percent tax on its transactions. Their voters agreed to the tax for three years, then voted again to keep the tax. Warwick had asked for up to 2 percent but mentioned charging much less - 0.50 or 0.75 percent. The Legislature designated 0.75 percent. Two years ago, Warwick joined with the towns of Goshen, Cranford, and Montgomery in Orange County, requesting that the state Legislature allow this transfer tax for the purchase of open space, subject to local voter approval. The bill never made it out of committee. The towns tried again last year with a similar result. This time, though, Warwick went it alone. With former Warwick councilwoman Annie Rabbitt elected to the Assembly, she and Sen. Thomas Morahan fought in Albany for the town's right to let their voters decide. Sweeton is realistic. He knows this fee has met with much opposition from real estate professionals and builders. "It is not an undue burden for someone coming to our area to contribute," Sweeton had said. "Newcomers will contribute toward what those already here have paid." Barbara Dooley of Coldwell Banker Currier & Lazier has lived in Warwick for 14 years and has been a Realtor for 12. She said the transfer tax will hurt her both as a homeowner and as a real estate associate. "As a homeowner in Warwick, I know a buyer is going to have to pay this fee so I will have to price my house accordingly," said Dooley. "They can only do so much. Closing costs are so high as it is. To add another fee is just not right." Dooley said many potential clients come to her looking in both New York and neighboring New Jersey. Since this tax only affects Warwick, she thinks many in the market will look either in New Jersey or in surrounding towns not facing this tax. "As Realtors, we disclose all fees upfront. They'll start to look out of town. We have good schools here in Warwick. It's a good community, but they'll look elsewhere," she said. John Clancey, a Realtor with Claudia Real Estate said the transfer tax will put an unfair burden on new residents to Warwick, especially first-time homebuyers, who can least afford it. "Any transfer tax is increasing the cost of homeownership, which alot of people are having trouble with already." And he worries that although it is not a huge tax at this point, that may change. "Taxes have a tendency to go up," he said. But Clancey also added that "there is the obvious benefit of this transfer tax in that it will help conserve open space." The town's Comprehensive Plan calls for the preservation of the town's character and quality of life while accommodating continued growth and development. Protecting farmland is an important element of local planning, according to the Comprehensive Plan, since it will provide open space and rural character, which enhances the town. "This will allow us to preserve more of our open space," Sweeton said. "We will be able to help with historic preservation, watershed protection, which benefits all three of our villages, and other critical environmental areas. We will focus mostly on farmland."