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Oregon Law Offers Potential For Property Tax Reductions

Properties under construction and projects subject to governmental restriction can take advantage of legislative provisions the state provides.

The Portland metropolitan area is undergoing an unprecedented boom in commercial construction that extends from downtown to the suburbs and into just about every product type.Many taxpayers are preparing to pay larger tax bills, either because they are developing one of those new projects, or because they own properties that are becoming more valuable in response to growing demand for redevelopment sites. This is particularly common in developed areas where infill construction is hot.

Taxpayers in either of those positions may be missing out on significant tax savings if they are unaware of two provisions of Oregon law that could offer some respite. The Oregon legislative has carved out property tax provisions for a property under construction and for a property subject to a governmental restriction. The savvy property owner needs to know about these opportunities and comply with the statutory requirements to achieve the tax benefit.

The provisions are especially relevant to Portland's latest round of development, much of which is concentrated around infill in neighborhoods and on properties that were once used for industrial activities.

It is important to remember that Oregon law bases property taxes on the real market value of the property or the maximum assessed value under the Oregon Limits on Property Tax Rates Amendment of 1997. Also known as Measure 50, this amendment imposed restrictions on future increases in assessed values and on tax rates. Taxing entities multiply the assessed value by the tax rate to calculate the taxes owed.

The state defines "real market value" as the price an informed buyer would pay to an informed seller in an arms-length transaction. The statute goes on to state that if the property is subject to a governmental restriction as to use, "the property's real market value must reflect the effect of those restrictions."

That brings us to the tax-saving opportunities associated with usage restrictions and construction. Taxpayers typically think of government restrictions only as zoning law or a conditional land-use limitation. Often overlooked are environmental restrictions on a property's use, such as when the federal Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Environmental Quality has identified the land as a contaminated site.

When a property is governed by a qualified environmental remediation plan, it is subject to a governmental restriction on the property's use. Obviously, the contamination and the future costs of remediation or containment significantly reduce the property's real market value.

One way to measure the reduction in market value caused by the government's environmental restrictions is to calculate the present value of the future clean-up costs. The assessing authority will consider the responsibility and costs of remediation or containment, and will usually reduce the real market value of the property significantly.

Another common governmental usage restriction occurs when a governmental agency provides low-interest loans or tax incentives as a means of encouraging development of certain types of public interest projects, such as low-income housing. The government loan will typically require that the property reserve a number of units for lease at a below-market rent.

In Oregon, the statute allows the property owner to choose whether it wants to enter into the special assessment program for low-income housing. A caution to the property owner that enters into the special assessment program for low-income housing is that the property could become subject to back taxes if it later fails to meet the requirements of the county, or of the loan.

Importantly, the statute does not require the property owner to enter the special assessment program to achieve the tax benefit of certain low-income housing units, as long as the loan meets certain statutory requirements and is properly recorded.

Not to be missed is the construction-in-progress exemption, which is available for income-producing properties. Most states encourage the development of commercial and industrial facilities by sheltering construction projects from the payment of taxation until the property is in use or occupied, and therefore generating rental income or enabling an owner-occupier to pursue business activities there.

The construction exemption requires strict compliance with the statute, and inadvertently failing to meet one of the criteria could cost the property owner a year of tax savings. The exemption isn't limited to manufacturing facilities; the Oregon Tax Court has held that this tax exemption is also available to a condominium under construction, provided that the units were held for sale until its completion.

While taxpayers in Portland's hot construction market enjoy many opportunities to take advantage of tax reductions, owners all across the state should be on the alert for these potential reductions.

Cynthia M. Fraser is a partner at the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer where she specializes in property tax and condemnation litigation. Ms. Fraser is the Oregon representative of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Ms. Fraser can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
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