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Intangibles Are Exempt from Property Tax

Numbers of lawsuits remind taxpayers and assessors to exclude intangible assets from taxable real estate value.

A recent case involving a Disney Yacht and Beach Club Resort in Orange County, Florida demonstrates how significantly tax liability can differ when an assessor fails to exclude intangible assets. For Disney's property, the tax assessor's and Disney's valuation of the property differed by a whopping $127.8 billion.

Real estate taxes are ad valorem, or based on the value of the real property. And only on real property.

The precise definition of real property varies by jurisdiction but generally is "the physical land and appurtenances affixed to the land," which is to say the land and any site and building improvements, according The Appraisal of Real Estate, 14th Edition.

Your real property tax assessment, then, should exclude the value of any non-real-estate assets. That includes tangible personal property like equipment, or intangible personal property like goodwill.

When real estate is closely linked to a business operation, such as a hotel, it can be difficult to separate business value from real estate value. If the business activity is subject to sales, payroll, franchise, or other commercial activity taxes, then the assessor's inclusion of business value in the property assessment results in impermissible double taxation.

In Singh vs. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts US Inc., the county assessor appraised the Disney resort using the Rushmore method, which accounts for intangible business value by excluding franchise and management expenses from the calculation of the net income before capitalizing to indicate a property value.

Disney argued the Rushmore method did not adequately separate income from food, beverage, merchandise and services sold on the real estate, not generated by leasing the real estate itself. Disney also argued that the assessor included the value of other intangible assets like goodwill, an assembled workforce, and the Disney brand in the valuation.

The trial court did not rule on the propriety of the Rushmore method but found its application in this case violated Florida law. Referencing an earlier case involving a horse racing track (Metropolitan Dade County vs. Tropical Park Inc.), the court agreed with Disney that "[w]hile a property appraiser can assess value using rental income or income that an owner generates from allowing others to use the real property, the property appraiser cannot assess value using income from the taxpayer's operation of business on the real property."

The trial court decision was appealed to the district court (appeals court). The appeals court found the Rushmore method, not just its application, violated Florida law by failing to remove all intangible business value from the tax assessment. When the case returned to the trial court on another issue, the appeals court instructed that the Rushmore method should not be used to assess the property.

In deciding Disney, both courts found SHC Halfmoon Bay vs. County of San Mateo instructive. That case involved the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay Hotel in California. The California court had rejected the Rushmore method because it "failed to identify and exclude intangible assets" including an assembled workforce, leasehold interest in a parking lot, and contract rights with a golf course operator from the property tax assessment.

The Disney trial court also looked to the Tropical Park horse track case, where the tax assessment improperly included income generated from the business betting operation not the land use.

Similarly, in an Ohio case involving a horse racing facility, the state Supreme Court rejected a tax valuation that included the value of intangible personal property in the form of a video-lottery terminal license (VLT) valued at $50 million by the taxpayer's expert (Harrah's Ohio Acquisition Co. LLC vs. Cuyahoga County Board of Revision). The property had a casino and 128-acre horse racing facility including a racing track, barns, and grandstand.

The Ohio Court recognized that the VLT had significant value that should be excluded from the real property tax assessment. It rejected the argument that the license was not an intangible asset because it could not be separately transferred or retained. Looking at its prior decisions, the Court had recognized a non-transferable license could still be valuable to the current holder of that license, and that value should be exempt from real property taxation.

Experts continue to disagree about the best method to appraise assets with a significant intangible business value component.Nonetheless, these court cases underline again how important it is for your tax assessment to exclude intangible assets. With most commercial property owners facing onerous tax burdens based on pre-COVID-19 valuation dates, it is even more critical that intangible assets are removed from valuations for property tax purposes. Work closely with assessors, knowledgeable appraisers, and tax professionals to ensure you only pay real estate taxes on the value of your real estate.

Cecilia J. Hyun is a partner with Siegel Jennings Co., L.P.A. The firm is the Ohio, Illinois and Western Pennsylvania member of the American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Cecilia is also a member of CREW Network.
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