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In the Summer 2016 Issue:

Interim "Watch Tower" Revaluation After High Sale Upheld

Revaluations Long Overdue

Outside Funds for Remediation Not Counted

What is the Value of a Church?

Aggressive Pennsylvania School Districts

Attorney Notes


Interim “Watch Tower” Revaluation After High Sale Upheld

The last citywide revaluation conducted by Milford was as of October 1, 2011.  On that date, the residential property at 19 Beach Avenue was valued by the assessor at $1,362,900.

A little more than nine months after the revaluation, a couple purchased the property for almost $500,000 more than the assessor had thought it was worth.  Not willing to hope that this huge discrepancy would somehow escape the assessor’s gaze, the buyers wrote to him later that summer to claim that the purchase price included $100,000 worth of furniture purchased from the sellers, a claim they could not document then or at any time during the litigation that followed.

The huge purchase price and the undocumented furniture assertion must have had the effect of waving a red flag because the assessor increased the property’s value the subsequent year by almost $300,000, thus precipitating a tax appeal. 

The owners argued that the assessor did not have the right to increase the value because of a statutory provision that prohibits an increase based “solely” on a purchase price higher than the assessor’s value.

Concerned about his obligation under (a Connecticut statute) to equalize assessments, a Superior Court wrote, “the assessor sought permission . . .  to inspect the interior . . . .”  Interestingly, the property owners acquiesced.  The assessor concluded that interior improvements, of which he had been unaware, justified increasing the value.  The property owners were unable to rebut this claim.

No matter, they asserted, because they were being penalized with an interim revaluation based only on their sales price.  Not so, said the Court because, while acknowledging the statutory prohibition against sale price induced increases, the assessor also had a “watch tower” duty to make sure that substantial assessment errors had not been made which would result in unfair treatment, both on the high and low sides. 

Indeed, the Court agreed with the assessor that his interior inspection offered sufficient support to justify his action.  It found that the appraisal evidence introduced by the parties supported an increase of approximately $200,000, about two-thirds of what the assessor sought. 

While this case addresses the value of a residential parcel, its impact should not be lost on commercial real estate owners.

Reznik v. City of Milford, Docket no.: CV-12-6028137 (December 11, 2015)

Contact Elliott B. Pollack at ebpollack@pullcom.com or 860-424-4340 to discuss this important ruling. 


Revaluations Long Overdue

The President of the International Property Tax Institute, Paul Sanderson, reports that New Jersey’s Division of Taxation has begun to prod the towns of South River, Harrison, East Newark, Westfield and Winfield to conduct property revaluations which they last performed more than 25 years ago!  As readers of Property Tax and Valuation Topics well know, revaluation foot dragging can result in unfair taxation results.  This is because the values of different classes of property do not change uniformly over extended time periods.  As a result, an office building and a shopping center that both might have been worth $1 million when last revalued in 1991 will likely have significantly different values today and therefore should bear different tax burdens.

Revaluation delays defer grappling with this reality.  


Outside Funds for Remediation Not Counted

A couple challenged the assessment of their home in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts and received a favorable ruling from the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board (ATB).  The Mattapoisett assessors appealed the ruling to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, claiming that whether or not the cost of remediating mold in their house essentially destroyed its market value, the homeowners had recovered that cost in a settlement with the manufacturers of the windows that allowed moisture to enter the building.  Consequently, they should be required to spend that money on remediating the mold problem and were not entitled to an assessment reduction. 

The evidence established that the moisture problems in the building were permanent and destroyed its value; the assessors argued that mold contamination was a temporary issue.

The settlement with the window company was not addressed by the Appeals Court because “the amount of and the terms of the settlement (were) not in the record . . . .”  Even if that evidence was on the record, the ATB’s conclusion that remediation might not solve the problem permanently was also persuasive and not contradicted by the assessors.

Settlement of their claim against the window manufacturer was not relevant to the fair market value of the property, the court held.  Interestingly, the same sort of issue arose in a commercial tax appeal decided by the Connecticut Supreme Court many years ago in which the availability of outside funding, in this case a governmental grant to remediate asbestos, was ruled to be a relevant consideration.

Bryan v. Board of Assessors, Massachusetts Appeals Court, 2016 WL 3198844, June 9, 2016.

Laura B. Cardillo can respond to questions about the impact of environmental issues on the value of real property in assessment and eminent domain litigation at lcardillo@pullcom.com or at 860-424-4309.


What is the Value of a Church?

According to Deborah Huso’s article in a recent issue of Valuation, the construction of religious buildings fell 80 percent in 2014 as compared to the peak of such activity in 2002.  As populations in rural and small town areas drop, new buildings do not open, churches close and frequently go on the market.  In many parts of the country, Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations have declined while, at the same time, Muslim and Mormon population growth has been significant.  Since many closed churches tend to be older buildings, Ms. Huso notes that appraisers should take a careful look at the issue of highest and best use (HBU).  Repositioning as a commercial development or, for smaller buildings, as a single family residence, might be the proper HBU conclusion. 

Twenty years ago, houses of worship were seen as special purpose properties appropriate for valuation via a cost methodology; sales were unusual.  More recently, many areas of the country have seen significant religious building transactions. 

Lacking sales in the market, however, the tendency is to default to a cost approach which raises questions because the principle of substitution may be difficult, if not impossible, to apply.  To put it simply, if one church is closing, is there a religious denomination interested in taking over its facility that would choose to build a new structure if it could not acquire a vacant church?  If not, land value for commercial use after deducting demolition cost may be a reasonable answer.

One upstate New York appraiser quoted in Ms. Huso’s article has observed a number of situations where “churches sell for the salvage value – stained glass windows, pews and other ornamentation.”  Depending on the antique market for these components, decommissioned religious buildings might be sadly worth more in pieces than as a whole. 

For further information about these issues, contact Tiffany K. Spinella at tspinella@pullcom.com or 860-424-4360.


Aggressive Pennsylvania School Districts

Lest Connecticut property owners think they alone face major challenges, the July 2015 Paradigm tax blog notes that Pennsylvania school districts may appeal to increase the value of a property they believe is undervalued.  Charmingly called a “spot” appeal, it appears that some school districts are suing to increase the assessments of a number of apartment complexes.  While not surprising in and of itself given the significant run up in multifamily values over the last several years, the idea that a governmental entity can interrupt a revaluation cycle by plucking out one or more properties for judicial scrutiny on the claim of under valuation would be anathema in Connecticut.  Once a revaluation is in place, Connecticut assessors may not cherry pick individual properties for assessment increases over the remainder of the revaluation cycle notwithstanding sales or other market developments which may suggest under valuation of an individual property.

The reason for this prohibition is quite solid.  Treating property valuations on an ad hoc basis runs the risk of distorting values within a given class, i.e. multifamily properties, as well as increasing these assets’ tax burdens while other properties’ values, which may also have increased, are left untouched. 

Amazingly, while the Pennsylvania constitution, Paradigm tells us, requires uniformity across all property types and the Commonwealth’s statutes prohibit county boards of assessment from conducting spot reassessments, how is it that school districts are immune?

An article in a Pennsylvania online real estate publication on July 10, 2016, calls for legislation to end the practice of spot appeals by school districts – a proposal which, from the perspective of participants in the Connecticut property tax system, is difficult to challenge.

For further information about these issues, contact Gregory F. Servodidio at gservodidio@pullcom.com or 860-424-4332.


Attorney Notes

The attorneys of Pullman & Comley’s Property Tax and Valuation practice were active in the legal and business community in the second quarter of 2016.

  • Laura Bellotti Cardillo moderated the panel, “Forming, Nurturing and Expanding Your Business:  Strategies for Healthy Growth,” at Moffly Media’s Women in Business Conference at the Greenwich Country Club on May 11.
  • Elliott B. Pollack discussed the valuation of dark big box stores at the annual assessor’s school conducted by the Connecticut Association of Assessing Officers at the University of Connecticut on June 8.
  • At a June 24 meeting of commercial real estate brokers from southern and western Connecticut, Gregory F. Servodidio presented useful tips and strategies for managing property taxes.  Greg’s talk was part of a Pullman & Comley presentation “Hot Topics in Commercial Real Estate.”
  • Tiffany K. Spinella continues her involvement as a member of the Connecticut Chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Exchange for Women (“CREW CT”) where she is active with the Program Committee.

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