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Beware of Excessive Property Taxes After Government Condemnations

Easements negatively affect a property's utility and desirability, reducing its fair market value.

Property valuation for tax purposes shares a common basis with condemnation law when it comes to the impact on property owner rights.

In practical terms, imposing an easement or taking a portion of a property devalues that real estate.

Property owners have a clear legal remedy for compensation when the government takes any of the bundle of rights inherent to property ownership. There is no prescribed procedure, however, that automatically adjusts taxable property value when the government burdens the property through some form of taking.

The property owner must step up and declare that the property is being subjected to a double hit: (1) the loss of some property rights for which compensation presumably was paid; (2) the continued excessive tax burden resulting from the assessor's failure to recognize the value loss commensurate with the taking of some right or rights that contributed to the property's prior value.

The Other Shoe Drops

How do properties burdened by government easements and partial takings suffer a double value loss?

First, the use of the property for some public purpose limits its usefulness to the owner, and therefore reduces its marketability. Second, the property owner incurs an ongoing cost in unfair taxation when the assessor fails to adjust to the diminished value and reduce the value for assessment purposes.

A typical example is a taking for a utility easement across a property. The owner and government will either negotiate a price paid for the easement, or a condemnation proceeding will determine just compensation.

The government acquires the easement legally, typically paying money to do so. Yet the acquisition imposes a value loss on the remainder of the property, a loss that goes unnoted and unacknowledged by the taxing authority.

There are small differences between the loss in value resulting from the imposition of an ·easement or the taking of the fee interest in the affected property, but all takings for a public purpose result in value loss to the remainder of the real estate.

Encumbrances All Around

Some examples of loss resulting from the imposition of an easement, be it a power line, sewer line, green space or pipeline, are the interference with or elimination of future development or use of the property. There is a loss of peaceful enjoyment and use of the property during the construction and development stage, as well as the continued inhibition of full use of the property in perpetuity.

The holder of the easement rights will also have the power forever to re-enter the property to maintain, repair, alter and expand its use within the easement. That right of access usually includes a right of ingress or egress over the whole property as required to get equipment and personnel to the easement.

For instance, agricultural properties subservient to easements, such as for power lines, are subjected to maintenance and repair crews corning to repair the lines and crossing through cultivated fields. Since the lines are most often damaged during storms, the fields will be at their most vulnerable to damage and resultant crop loss.

The crop-loss scenario is equally adaptable to urban commercial property. A sewer line running under the parking lot of a big-box store, a power line across a convenience store entrance, a water line in front of a fast food restaurant, are all subject to failure or modification that could interfere with the enterprise operating on the property.

The point is that the encumbered property, if offered for sale, will not obtain the same price as a competing property that is unencumbered by such a burden.

Calculate the loss

The basic measure of compensation to acquire an easement is the fair market value of the property before the taking versus the fair market value after the taking. The difference between those values represents the compensable loss to the owner.

Assessors ignore this statutory standard, failing to recognize that a property burdened by public easements does not command the same value as unburdened or less burdened properties of similar use.

Properties that have lost size as a result of a taking for public use suffer an even greater value loss to the remainder of the asset. Assessors will typically use some database to justify their value assessment, confronting the taxpayer with statistics. The assessor will rely on market data such as asserting that hotels sell for $X per room, Class A office space for $Y per square foot, convenience stores on one-acre lots for $Z and so on.

But a commercial property diminished in size is invariably diminished in desirability, if not in outright utility.

A very small strip of land taken in front of a fast food restaurant may result in an inferior access. A taking from an office building parking lot may result in a lack of adequate parking that is usually required. The taking may render the entire property nonconforming because setback requirements and building-to-land ratios no longer meet local ordinances.

Assessors rarely, if ever, re-value properties after a taking through eminent domain or a threat of it, and lower the assessed value to reflect the property's lost competitiveness in the marketplace.

The fast food store owner knows that hamburger sales suffer after a street widening or change of access. A shopping center manager knows how diminished parking affects business. Hotel management knows the negative result of lost visibility due to a highway project. The list could go on.

The point is that easements and other takings inflict observable damage on a commercial property's utility and desirability. They all result in lost fair market value, with no acknowledgement by assessors.

Property owners appealing their tax assessments should quantify this value loss and present this data to property tax decision makers. Anything less than a fair adjustment would be an unfair, further burden to the property owner already encumbered by the public use.

Wallach90Jerome Wallach is the senior partner in The Wallach Law Firm based in St. Louis, Missouri. The firm is the Missouri member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Jerry Wallach can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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