Where the value of commercial properties has failed to keep pace with local governments’ revenue needs, real estate assessors have pursued unconventional arguments and valuation methods to protect and grow the property tax base. Among those arguments and methods, assessors increasingly contend that manufacturing and other commercial properties are “special-purpose properties,” and therefore the property tax assessments on these assets should exceed the value that would result from the use of traditional market data.
While special-purpose properties certainly exist, these assessors’ arguments typically fail in three ways. First, they erroneously confuse limited-market property with special-purpose property. Second, they refuse to consider available market evidence that, even if imperfect, provides information about the value of the property. Third, even when a property is a special-purpose property, assessors often value the wrong interest, valuing more than the fee simple real estate, for example.
Wrong definition, incorrect assessments
The Dictionary of Real Estate Appraisal defines special-purpose property as "[a] limited-market property with a unique physical design, special construction materials, or a layout that restricts its utility to the use for which it was built; also called special-design property.” Thus, special-purpose property is both a limited-market property and a property having a unique physical design, special construction materials or a layout that restricts it to the use for which it was built. By definition, special-purpose properties are a subset of limited-market properties; they are not synonymous.
A subset, not the same set
In general, special-purpose properties are a subset of limited-market properties, which are a small subset of commercial properties.
Appraisers often identify certain categories of property as special purpose, such as churches, schools, railroad stations and sports arenas. But such properties, in addition to being limited-market properties, also reflect specific evidence of unique physical design, highly restricted use and/or special construction materials.
The facts of a New Jersey case illuminate the difference between properties with special features and special-purpose properties. In Ford Motor Co. vs. Township of Edison, the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1992 concluded that an automotive manufacturing plant was a general-purpose property, even though it was constructed with heavy steel framing, paint booths, baking ovens, massive boilers, terrazzo amenities, and electrical, steam and plumbing infrastructure that exceeded normal industrial requirements. Although the property was a limited-market property, the court noted that “[a] property does not qualify as special-purpose where it possesses certain features which, while rendering the property suitable to the owner’s use, are not truly unique.”
Importantly, whether a property is special-purpose is a fact-specific inquiry, and courts rightly reject attempts to classify properties as special-purpose in the absence of evidence that the property is special-purpose. Other cases reinforcing this concept include a 2015 decision in Certain Teed Corp. vs. County of Scott, in which a Minnesota tax court rejected the contention that a shingle factory was a special-purpose property; and TD Bank vs. City of Hackensack, a 2015 case in which a New Jersey tax court rejected an argument that a bank branch is a special-purpose property.
Refusal to consider market data may lead to higher assessments
Assessors typically argue that special-purpose properties may only be valued using the cost approach; that market comparable sales may not be used to value special-purpose property, and/or that the value of the special-purpose property is so intimately tied to the property’s owner or user that the assessor must use income from business operations (as opposed to rents) to value the property.
These arguments share a flawed premise that, due to the property’s unique nature, there is simply no market data available to value the property. These arguments often fail because they conflict with real world evidence.
For example, while it may be true in a given case that there are few or no comparable market transactions for a special-purpose property, this is not an appraisal rule or point of law. That is why the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2007 reversed the decision of a tax court that had refused to consider available sales data based on the classification of the property as special-purpose. In that case, Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Coop vs. County of Renville, the Court acknowledged that if market transactions exist and shed light on the value of a special-purpose property, it should be considered even if adjustments must be made to account for differences between the comps and the subject property.
Just as it is wrong to refuse categorically to consider market transactions when valuing special-purpose property, it is inappropriate to consider taxpayer-specific income data reflecting more than the value of the real property. For example, special-purpose manufacturing properties are seldom rented in the market. Attempting to value the real estate based on non-rental income from the manufacturing operations would produce a highly misleading estimate of value, since such income is derived from non-real estate elements such as intangibles and personal property. Examples of intangibles include an in-place work force, intellectual property and goodwill; personal property includes items such as manufacturing machinery and equipment.
Given the tenuous link between manufacturing income or business income and the value of a special-purpose property in which the manufacturing occurs, taxpayers can—and should—object to the assessor’s use of such income information to value the real property, even if it is a special purpose property.
When assessors increase assessments or defend excessive assessments by claiming that the property is special-purpose, taxpayers should request the evidence on which the classification and the valuation are based. In many cases, taxpayers will find that such assessments lack support, conflict with generally accepted appraisal practices, and should be appealed.