Property Tax Resources


New Jersey Tax Court Supports Taxpayers’ Rights

A New Jersey township learns that tax courts don't always buy into theoretical constructs.

Our tax courts live in a hypothetical world where they review property tax assessments in a theoretical manner to mimic the actual marketplace. Often municipal officials use this paradigm to distort concepts and achieve high values that cannot be realized in the market. The case of CIBA Specialty Chemical Corp. vs. Township of Toms River highlighted this dichotomy.

The subject property is an industrially zoned, 1,211-acre former chemical plant in Toms River, New Jersey. The plant produced industrial dyes and resins for over 40 years. Unfortunately, the manufacturing process also created significant industrial waste that was treated and disposed of on site, significantly contaminating the soil and groundwater.

The environmental contamination was so severe and pervasive that the entire property was designated a Superfund Site and was placed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (USEPA) National Priorities List in 1983.

Commercial operations at the site ceased in 1996, but environmental remediation work has been both active and ongoing. The controversial nature and extent of the contamination has embroiled the property and township in public controversy, federal criminal prosecution, and a number of civil lawsuits initiated by both public entities and private citizens.

Further complicating matters, the subject property is in a protected coastal zone adjacent to a tributary known as Toms River. This added layer of government oversight by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection serves to safeguard sensitive coastal areas and endangered species from overdevelopment. When put into practice at the subject property, these regulations either completely prohibit or severely restrict redevelopment activity on most of the property.

Any proposed redevelopment at the property would require the prospective developer to navigate this labyrinth of federal and state regulations, obtain consent and cooperation from a number of federal and state agencies, and garner support from the local municipality and public interest groups to avoid politicization of the zoning and planning processes at all levels.

Undaunted by these regulatory restrictions, the town asserted that not only could the property be developed, but that numerous residential housing units could be constructed on the site despite the current zoning or the pervasive contamination. And, of course, the town sought to tax the property on its potential residential value.

It was undisputed that the USEPA was the primary regulatory authority from whom a market participant would have had to obtain approval before attempting to redevelop any portion of the site. The town's own expert conceded this fact. The USEPA has total control over the property while remediation is taking place and will reject any proposal it believes may interfere with selected remedial action, or that would lack public support.

Despite overwhelming evidence that USEPA regulations would prohibit any development, that the zoning didn't allow residential construction, and that the public opposed the site's redevelopment, the town was undeterred. Its leaders argued that high-density housing could have been developed on the property with a rezoning, justifying its revaluation as residential rather than industrial real estate.

The frequent use of hypothetical scenarios encourages assessors to fly far from the reality of the marketplace to justify otherwise unsupportable assessments and increased tax burdens. Finding comfort in this hypothetical world, the town appealed to the perceived taxing-authority bias of the New Jersey Tax Court.

To create their hypothetical world in court, the town redefined key words in the USEPA regulations to establish results that were completely inappropriate for a rational reading of the rules. They stretched logic and applied to the subject property actions that USEPA had taken at other Superfund Sites. In doing so, they assumed that all contaminated sites can be treated the same, and that the case workers at this site will make decisions based on events at other remote Superfund sites, rather than basing decisions on the facts related to the subject property.

The town contrived its self-serving arguments to satisfy an outrageous assessment. It is all too often that the hypothetical nature of the court's standards and the theatrical nature of appraisal theory invite the clear distortion of marketplace reality.

The only saving grace in the system is that the courts assigned to decide these cases are trusted to end the nonsense and craft a decision based on fact and actual dealings. That does not always happen, but here, it did. In a detailed and thorough decision, the court summarized the overwhelming data that proved the taxpayer's case.

The court concluded that the entirety of 1,211 acres was development-prohibited, due to its status as an active Superfund Site and USEPA's ongoing institutional controls. The USEPA's oversite documents, which are legally enforceable and filed with the county clerk, restrict any development at the property unless the USEPA approves, or the site is partially or fully delisted as a Superfund site.

Reality finally hit home for the municipality when it was compelled to refund the taxpayer over $18 million.

These types of rulings in taxpayers' favor are rare. Nonetheless, taxpayers must continue to press courts to recognize market reality. It is not the courts' job to protect the municipal tax base.

Brian A. Fowler, Esq.
Philip Giannuario, Esq.
Philip Giannuario and Brian A. Fowler are partners at the Montclair, New Jersey, law firm Garippa Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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Contingent Fee Consultants Target Large Property Owners for Tax Increases

While the taxing jurisdictions' consultants maintain that they are not doing appraisal work or appraisal consulting work, a review of USPAP definitions suggests differently. The Uniform Standards define appraisal consulting as "the act or process of developing an analysis, recommendation, or opinion to solve a problem, where an opinion of value is a component of the analysis leading to the assignment results."

By John E. Garippa, Esq. & Brian A. Fowler, Esq., as published by National Real Estate Investor - Online, October 2012

As U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall observed two centuries ago, "the power to tax involves the power to destroy." That statement applies today in the Delaware Valley, where taxing jurisdictions are delegating the tax assessment function to outside consultants.

Incredibly, these consultants are compensated on a contingent fee basis for the additional tax revenue they can accumulate for the jurisdiction. In a typical contract, the fee has been 25 percent of the additional revenue received over a three-year period.

In practice, these consultants can pick and choose which properties to recommend for reassessment. It's not surprising that the most valuable commercial assets, which offer the largest potential for gain in a reassessment, attract the most attention from these bounty-hunting consultants.
Here's how the process typically works. Once consultants have determined which properties are under-assessed, the school districts file affirmative appeals to raise the assessments on the affected properties. Property owners who choose to defend their existing assessments must hire attorneys and independent appraisers at considerable cost.

This system of taxation grows less uniform with each reappraisal. And while it may seem absurd to hand over the reins of tax policy to an outside consultant, the practice is becoming routine under current Pennsylvania law.

Taxing questions

Experience has shown that at any given time there will always be disparities in tax assessments within a given jurisdiction. However, most taxpayers assume that the assessment function is being performed by tax assessors in an ethical and uniform manner, and that those assessors are not paid based on the increased revenue they find.

The increasingly prevalent use of tax assessment consultants raises serious issues that communities must address.
First, the Pennsylvania legislature has prohibited contingent fee agreements where it has deemed them to be contrary to public interest. Specifically, Pennsylvania law prohibits real estate appraisers from accepting an appraisal assignment where the fee is contingent on the valuation reached.
While consultants to taxing entities might argue that they are not appraisers, the fact that they are concluding to a value or value range arguably makes their work product an appraisal.

Second, Pennsylvania has adopted the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP), which can help to level the playing field for the property owner in appealing an assessment. Those rules include minimum standards for the retention of records, referred to as the "record-keeping rule." An appraiser or consultant must prepare a work file for each appraisal, appraisal review or appraisal consulting assignment.

A work file must exist prior to the issuance of any conclusion, and a written summary of any oral report must be added to the work file within a reasonable time after the issuance of the oral report. Any appraiser or consultant who willfully or knowingly fails to comply with the obligations of this record keeping rule is in violation of the state's ethics rule.

While the taxing jurisdictions' consultants maintain that they are not doing appraisal work or appraisal consulting work, a review of USPAP definitions suggests differently. The Uniform Standards define appraisal consulting as "the act or process of developing an analysis, recommendation, or opinion to solve a problem, where an opinion of value is a component of the analysis leading to the assignment results."

The Uniform Standards also indicate that an appraisal may be numerically expressed as a "range of numbers or as a relationship (e.g. not more than, nor less than) to a previous value opinion or numerical benchmark (e.g. assessed value, collateral value)." Clearly, concluding that certain properties are under-assessed requires a conclusion of value and a comparison to an existing assessment benchmark. The point is, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck--or in this case, an appraisal.

Allowing consultants to wander the tax lists on the basis of bounty hunting for under-assessed properties is essentially a free trip for the taxing authorities, which bear no burden of cost. When the targets are identified and appeals are filed to increase the assessments, the consultants are rewarded for their efforts by being paid a fee contingent on whatever additional revenue is raised.

If taxing authorities had to fund these efforts on an ongoing basis, rather than on a contingent fee basis, much of this bounty hunting would end. Moreover, if state licensing authorities would examine this conduct under existing appraisal law and the Uniform Standards, the inevitable conclusion would be that appraisal consulting services are taking place. Again, this would serve to restrain the current, unbridled practice of targeting large taxpayers.


Garippa155 John E. Garippa is senior partner and Brian A. Fowler is an associate in the law firm of Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario with offices in Montclair, N.J., the New Jersey member of the American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.
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