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When Property Tax Valuation Worlds Collide

Simultaneously protesting an assessment and a government taking can put taxpayers in a quandary.

There are multitudes of ways for property owners to reduce their tax burdens, as well as missteps that can derail a tax strategy. With that in mind, taxpayers should beware of trying to prove a low value for a tax appeal while simultaneously claiming a higher value in another proceeding. And here is how it can happen.

Protesting a high assessment

Most real estate taxes in the Northeast -- including those in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts -- have an "ad valorem" or "value-based" assessment method. Thus, the greater a property is worth, the higher its real estate tax burden. A property tax bill is calculated by multiplying the property assessment by the tax rate. The assessment or taxable value is determined by the local assessor or board of assessors and is typically a percentage of market value.

This percentage varies among states and even municipalities. In New York, it is based on a comprehensive analysis of sales. The percentage is released annually by the state's Office of Real Property Tax Services and is different for each municipality. Connecticut sets its percentage by statute. In Pennsylvania, it is set by the state's Tax Equalization Board. But regardless of the state or method, local statutes fortunately allow property owners to reduce their real property tax burden by protesting the assessment they receive.

To successfully appeal a tax assessment, property owners must file a tax appeal and conclusively prove a lower market value. There are a few accepted ways to do this, namely the sales comparison, income capitalization, and cost approaches to determining value. No matter which method is used, the calculation must value the property according to its actual use and condition as it existed on a specific date in the past. New York designates this as a taxable status date and most states use the same or a similar term.

Asserting a higher value

The "actual use and condition" guideline in setting taxable value stands in stark contrast with condemnation and eminent domain guidelines, which value property when it is taken for a public purpose. In that scenario, the property must be valued according to its highest and best use, regardless of how the property is actually being used.

When the government takes private property for a public purpose, it must compensate the owner for the damages to the property's most valuable use. This valuation standard is known as "highest and best use," and has a specific meaning in the appraisal and eminent domain world.

According to the Appraisal Institute's reference text, "The Appraisal of Real Estate," and a multitude of state and federal court cases, the highest and best use of a property must be (1) physically possible, (2) legally permissible, (3) financially feasible, and (4) maximally productive. A taxpayer building a case for maximum value will typically need a lawyer, along with an appraiser and/or engineer, to evaluate these four categories for the specific property, look at the range of uses that qualify under each of those categories, and then conclude which use will result in the highest market value.

For example, a vacant, five-acre, commercial-zoned parcel of land on Madison Avenue in New York City would not be valued as vacant land, but as whatever its maximum use could have been, such as an office building.

At crossed purposes

There can be a serious conflict between the two guidelines when there is a partial taking, such as when a government takes a strip of a larger tract for a road widening, during the pendency of a tax assessment appeal on the larger property. The conflict can arise when the property's highest and best use happens to be its present use and condition.

In that scenario, a property owner is in the difficult position of claiming a low market value for the tax assessment proceedings and claiming a higher market value during the condemnation proceeding. When that happens, the taxpayer's team must perform an analysis to determine which proceeding will potentially result in the greatest benefit to the owner.

A good rule of thumb would be to withdraw the tax appeal and concentrate on the eminent domain claim. This is because for condemnation, the damage has occurred on a single date (the date of the taking). Tax appeals, on the other hand, are filed annually, and market values can change from year to year. A wise petitioner would proceed with a tax appeal only after the eminent domain claim is concluded.

Jason M. Penighetti is an attorney at the Mineola, N.Y., law firm of Koeppel Martone & Leistman LLP, the New York State member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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