How Wisconsin Supreme Court decision on assessments of specialized manufacturing plants affects owners
"The critical aspect of the case for property owners is the Supreme Court's conclusion that there was a market for continued use of the property, when neither party could identify an example of such a sale..."
Wisconsin tax law requires assessors to assess real estate at its fair market value. Whenever possible, that value must reflect recent sales of reasonably comparable property. Longstanding Wisconsin Supreme Court decisions have held that real estate cannot be assessed based on an imaginary or hypothetical market, or at its intrinsic value to the current owner, if that value differs from fair market value. Under those decisions, real estate can only be assessed at what market evidence indicates a third party would pay for the property in the open market.
In the recent case of a specialized plant, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected the property owner's argument that the plant was assessed at its intrinsic value to the owner's manufacturing business and not at its fair market value as real estate.
The plant was built to manufacture a highly specialized food product, using a process regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The manufacturer incorporated unique real estate features — at tremendous cost — to meet FDA standards. These included a spray dryer more than 100 feet tall housed in an 8-story tower, as well as concrete surfaces specially treated to eliminate any air pockets where moisture with microbial growth could reside.
At trial before the Wisconsin Tax Appeals Commission, neither the assessor with the Wisconsin Department of Revenue nor the manufacturer's appraiser could identify a single instance anywhere in the United States where a similar plant had sold for continued use to manufacture the same product. The manufacturer's appraiser concluded that there was no market to sell the property for continued use, and that the highest and best use of the plant was as an ordinary food processing plant.
The assessor, however, speculated that one of the manufacturer's few competitors could be a likely purchaser of the plant, and that there was a market for the plant for continued use. The assessor thus valued the property based on its cost to the manufacturer, including the expensive features added solely to support production of its one specialized product, but disregarding the lack of value of those improvements to a purchaser buying the plant for any other use.
The Tax Appeals Commission upheld the Department of Revenue's conclusion that there was a market for continued use of the property to manufacture the same specialized product, thereby upholding the assessment based on the plant's cost to the manufacturer.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed the Tax Appeals Commission and rejected the manufacturer's arguments that the plant was being assessed at its intrinsic value to the owner's manufacturing business and that this was inconsistent with prior Supreme Court decisions.
The critical aspect of the case for property owners is the Supreme Court's conclusion that there was a market for continued use of the property, when neither party could identify an example of such a sale. The court held that a "market can exist for a subject property, especially a special-use property, without actual sales data of similar properties being available." The court further stated that "markets are necessarily forward-looking" and that "empirical evidence of past sales activity is certainly informative, but it is not conclusive."
The Net Effect
Traditionally, owners of properties with expensive features included solely to support the business conducted on the property have pointed to a lack of comparable property sales as evidence that the features do not translate into real estate value.
Because of the Wisconsin Supreme Court's conclusions that markets are forward-looking, that lack of evidence of sales is not conclusive, and that a market can exist without actual sales data, it may now become more challenging for taxpayers to contest assessments. This may be especially true for assessments that are primarily based on the cost of features that are valuable only to the current owner.
In the Wisconsin Supreme Court case, the manufacturer argued that affirming the Tax Appeals Commission decision would place an impossible burden on property owners to prove a negative, which is the absence of a market. The court disagreed, stating that taxpayers are only required to present "sufficient contrary evidence" to demonstrate that an assessor's highest and best use conclusion is incorrect based on the existence of a particular market.
As a result, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has left the door open for property owners to claim that there is no market to sell their plant for continued use. In light of the decision, and the statutory presumption that an assessor's conclusions are correct, property owners should be prepared to make a strong case if they intend to establish the absence of a market.
That case might include an analysis of the industry in which the manufacturer operates. Such analysis could attempt to show that there is no one who would purchase the plant to manufacture the same product. Thus, no one would pay what the plant is worth to the current owner to buy the plant as real estate.