The fight over the value of Alexander Graham Bell’s former estate
Alexander Graham Bell’s descendants want to cut down on the tax bill for his former estate near Baddeck, N.S.
They say the assessment value of $1 million that is used to levy municipal property taxes should only be about half that amount.
The family members, represented by trustees of Beinn Bhreagh Hall Corp., appealed to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board at a hearing in Baddeck on Tuesday.
Sara Grosvenor, a great-granddaughter of Bell and a trustee for the estate, said the 125-year-old stately home is deteriorating and costing millions in repairs and maintenance.
However, she said, it should still be preserved for future generations because of its historical significance.
Sara Grosvenor, a great-granddaughter of Bell and a trustee of the Beinn Bhreagh family estate in Baddeck, says the cultural and historic legacy left by Bell and his wife Mabel will remain well into the future. (Tom Ayers/CBC)
“It is really a beacon for the Bells, for their achievements, and it’s iconic, because there are few places in the world where you can experience the lives of historic figures as completely.”
The estate has been used as a family summer home since Bell’s death in 1922. It has been mostly unused since 2006 while repairs have been underway, but Grosvenor said someone regularly looks after the property and there are plans to open it up again.
“The Bells very frequently had both private and public events at the house,” she said in an interview. “They would have fundraisers for the hospital, the Red Cross, the library in Baddeck. They would have symposiums of scientists and explorers.
“We want to continue this tradition and we’ve also considered having a tour program. The tours would be kind of in the off-season of the building. The family gathers there in July and August.
“The tours would be in the spring and fall months, and we did in 2016 have a pilot tour program, so we’re just figuring out some groups that plan to tour in this area this summer and if they have interest in seeing the building.”
Assessment appeal generated controversy last year
Bell’s descendants first appealed the 2016 assessment before the Nova Scotia Assessment Appeal Tribunal, a move that generated some controversy in denying the appeal.
Tribunal member Raffi Balmanoukian wrote last spring that the owners’ arguments had merit, but the evidence was lacking.
However, before making that ruling, he questioned Bell’s historical claim to have invented the telephone, referring to an American who claimed he invented the communication device before Bell.
“If Antonio Meucci had renewed his patent office caveat for his ‘sound telegraph,’ this appeal may not have been before me today,” Balmanoukian wrote.
“Instead, the name Dr. Alexander Graham Bell is forever associated with the telephone, making everything ever connected — if I may be forgiven the use of ‘connection’ — with his name sacred writ to historians and aficionados.
“I confess I am not a fan of his claim to fame. I do however give him his full due to that great contribution to global communication and understanding, a small magazine of magnificent photography and an iconic yellow border — National Geographic.
“This is not to say that for the appellant all is lost for all time,” Balmanoukian wrote. “I indulge myself by saying, ‘Please hang up and try your call again.'”
Bells claim bias, but appeal on appraisal
The owners claimed that showed the tribunal was biased against its appeal. In one filing with the UARB, Edwin S. Grosvenor, a great-grandson of Bell and a historian, writes that Meucci’s claims to have invented the telephone were “spurious” and that a U.S. patent court judge soundly rejected Meucci’s arguments.
As the assessor’s lawyer, Robert Andrews, told the hearing on Tuesday: “It’s important to note that the director of assessment does not assess history.”
The owners say the 8,500-square-foot home will need $1 million in repairs over the next two years.
According to the Victoria County municipal tax rate, the estate owners could save about $6,000 in annual taxes if the assessment value is cut in half.
Bell family members say the 8,500-square-foot stone home, built in 1893, will need $1 million in repairs over the next two years. (Property Valuation Services Corp.)
The property has federal and provincial heritage designations, and a provincial conservation easement on the title, meaning the owners can’t subdivide the land or change the exterior of the building.
The estate’s assessed value for tax purposes is $902,000, but the owners say an appraisal they had done determined it should be $475,000. They say the property can’t be compared to others, because no other property in Cape Breton has the same historical significance or heritage restrictions on maintenance.
Mabel Grosvenor, Bell’s granddaughter, died in 2006, leaving the estate and a trust fund for its maintenance.
Her niece, Sara Grosvenor, told the UARB hearing that the trust fund is down to about $400,000 and there is a possibility it will run out before all the necessary repairs are done.
And it’s getting increasingly difficult to convince younger members of the need to continue maintaining it in perpetuity, she said.
Harder to justify maintenance costs
“Every family generation, they’re getting more distant from the original legacy,” Grosvenor said. “I was in the house from age nine to 40 or something, so I have this association with Mabel and my parents in that house. But many cousins don’t, so they worry about the expense of it and being able to maintain it.”
The home sits on about 10 hectares of land at the end of the peninsula that creates Baddeck Bay. The original estate was about 243 hectares, covering much of the peninsula, which has since been subdivided into parcels and seasonal homes owned by Bell’s descendants.
Name Gaelic for ‘beautiful mountain’
Bell’s home is described as a two-storey single dwelling built of stone in 1893. Beinn Bhreagh is Gaelic for ‘beautiful mountain.’
The assessor says the value has been appealed several times. It was lowered on appeals in 2009 and 2010, but confirmed in 2014, 2015 and 2016.
In the current appeal, Bell family members continue to insist the assessed value is too high because of the required cost of maintenance and the restrictions imposed by a conservation easement and heritage designation.
The assessor says its valuation is correct because heritage status has no value and Beinn Bhreagh has no income potential. Therefore, it can only be compared to similarly sized waterfront properties in Cape Breton.
Descendants of Alexander Graham Bell are appealing the assessment value of Beinn Bhreagh, the 125-year-old estate Bell had built in Baddeck. (Property Valuation Services Corp.)
But both sides agree there are few, if any, truly comparable sites.
Daniel McNeil, a senior assessor with Property Valuation Services Corp., told the hearing that many smaller properties with less waterfront on the Bras d’Or Lake have sold recently for a lot more money, making his appraised value at $1 million “very conservative.”
“It is a stunning piece of property.”
Both sides can still file final legal submissions with the UARB, which will render a decision at a later date.