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Dec
19

Runaway Property Taxes in New Jersey

Tax courts don't always recognize market value in setting property tax assessments.

Most real estate is taxed ad valorem, or according to the value. The theory is that each person is taxed on the value of the real property they own.

The New Jersey Constitution (Article VIII, Section 1, paragraph 1) stipulates that property is to be assessed for taxation by general laws and uniform rules, and that all non-agricultural real property must be assessed according to the same value standard.

Our statutes define the standard of value as the true property value. We call this market value, or the most probable price a property will bring in a competitive and open market under conditions requisite to a fair sale. That assumes the buyer and seller are each acting prudently and knowledgeably, and that the price is unaffected by undue stimulus.

In 2005, the state Tax Court, in a General Motors case, openly admitted it was making a determination that the highest and best use of the property was as an auto assembly facility. By this determination, the court set public policy indicating that this highest and best use fairly and equitably distributed the property tax burden.

In this case the court felt it was necessary to conclude the highest and best use of the property at issue was an auto assembly plant because to do otherwise may allow features of the property to go untaxed and therefore lower the value of the plant. The court also stated that this determination was consistent with and effectuates the public policy of fairly and equitably distributing the property tax burden. All of this was concluded while the market data suggested a different result, given that no auto manufacturing facility had ever before been sold to another automobile manufacturer. Further, by law, the tax court's role is to determine value, not to redistribute the tax burden.

The history of the Tax Court has, in practice if not in theory, interpreted the constitution and statutes of real property taxation to find value in a uniform and stabilized manner. In other words, although the market may vary over a period of years under review, the court would attempt to stabilize the effect of the differences when rendering opinions.

The Tax Court would also set precedent by using methods of valuation not normally used in the marketplace because it deemed the data before it at trial to be lacking. It has, for example, applied a cost approach to determine value when a buyer would purchase a property based on an income approach. This is common in court decisions, but often runs afoul of true market motivations and distorts the conclusion of value. The more the courts reach these types of decisions, the further away they move from concluding market value.

The court's attempt to carry these principles forward has appeared in various ways over the years. As early as 1996, in a case involving a super-regional mall with anchors not separately assessed, the Tax Court deemed the income approach inappropriate to value the stores and instead valued the stores on a cost approach. Today, the legacy of that decision requires plaintiffs to present a cost approach, which is not evidence of market value. This may well distort a property's valuation.

Issues such as capitalization rates are also problematic for certain assets in Tax Courts findings. Over the years, court precedent has set rates that often do not reflect the market. This is especially evident today when valuing regional malls classified as B or C grade. The market capitalization rates are well over those the courts have historically found. Although transactions verify this market data as accurate, the courts fail to recognize it, making it difficult for plaintiffs to prevail with values based on actual, transactional data.

In January 2018, after a number of decisions that rejected plaintiffs' approach, our Tax Court appears to have taken some pause. It recognized that by rejecting proofs from the market and data forwarded by taxpayers, it was ultimately failing to conclude to warranted assessment adjustments.

It stated:

"there has been some criticism of late, that the Tax Court perhaps has raised the bar for meeting the standard of proof too high in property tax appeals, given arguendo, what could be viewed as a growing trend seen in a number of recent decisions, where the court rejected expert opinions and declined to come to value. While such a suggestion may give the Tax Court pause for self-examination and reflection, it must not serve to invite expert appraisers to abrogate their responsibility of providing the court with 'an explanation of the methodology and assumptions used…'"

The quote seems to recognize that the proof bar was getting so high that a plaintiff could never prove its case. A more realistic view of the proofs provided by a taxpayer comes with it the recognition that market data and actions from market participants are the touchstones of value that should establish our assessments.

Philip Giannuario, Esq. is a partner at the Montclair, N.J. 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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Jan
05

RETAIL SUFFERS FROM EXCESSIVE TAX ASSESSMENTS Assessors attempt to ignore market realities when valuing retail property.

Retail property owners' pursuit of fair treatment in real estate taxation seems to generate a river of appeals and counter-appeals each year. What makes this ongoing melee especially perplexing and frus­trating for property owners is a sense that taxing entities will often ignore market realities and established valu­ation practices to insist upon inequi­table, inflated assessments. This tendency to forsake indus­try norms is rampant, and calls for a dose of reality. This article uses the term "real value" to describe that of­ten ignored element of true property value or genuine value of the real es­tate only, meaning the market value that buyers and sellers recognize as a product of an asset's attributes and the real-world conditions affecting it. Real value in this usage is not a legal term, but encompasses issues that real estate brokers, property owners, appraisers, lawyers and tax managers regularly discuss in retail valuation. The array of issues that affect real value or market value range from the influence of ecommerce on in-store sales to build-to-suit leases, sales of vacant space, capi­talization rates for malls of varying quality, proper ac­counting for eco­nomic or functional obsolesce and more.

All of these important and timely issues find their way into an age-old discussion of how to properly value the real estate, and only the real estate, in retail properties for property tax purposes. Although these topics may involve complex calcula­tions or judgments, buyers and sell­ers regularly use these concepts to ar­rive at mutually agreeable transaction prices, which is exactly the sort of real value that assessors should recognize for taxation. Some taxpayers may be surprised to learn that the arms-length sale of a property on the open market isn't universally accepted among taxing entities as representing that property's real or taxable value. The path to rem­edying assessors' tendency to avoid finding the real value of the real estate only is to educate tax authorities and their assessors by appealing unjust as­sessments, and by sharing the details of beneficial case law that continues to shape tax practices across the country.

Cases in Point
Tax laws vary from state to state so that the applicable principle that comes from the case decision in one region may not fit neatly in another region. Nevertheless, trends and con­cepts are always important guideposts that need to be recognized. Taxpayers who present case law from other re­gions to their local courts can begin the process of introducing the truth of real value in their market. A number of new retail property tax cases have come from the Midwest. These cases deal with issues that tax­ payers coast to coast have argued and continue to argue in the struggle to establish real value in court for retail property. ln 2016, the Indiana Tax Court heard an appeal from the Marion County tax assessor, who was unhappy with an Indiana Board of Tax Review decision that granted lowered assessments on Lafayette Square Mall for the 2006 and 2007 tax years. The assessor had origi­nally valued the property at $56.3 mil­lion for 2006, but the county's Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeal re­duced that amount by more than half. Simon Property Group, which owned the mall during the years in question, appealed to the Board of Tax Review, which further reduced the property's taxable value to $15.3 million for 2006 and $18.6 million for 2007. During the appeal, taxpayer, Simon Property Group, presented evidence of the mall's $18 million sale in late 2007. It stated it had begun to market the property for sale because it was suffering from vacancy and leasing is­sues and the property no longer fit its investment mission. The taxpayer's appraiser indepen­dently verified the sale and concluded it to be arms-length, having been ad­equately marketed and there being no relationship between buyer and seller and no special concessions for financ­ing.This scenario seems like what most of us in the tax assessment community would consider a textbook example of market-defined value. Yet the county assessor appealed the review board's conclusion to the tax court.

What is noteworthy here is that the court affirmed the tax board's conclu­sions, which were also in line with the taxpayer's evidence from a real-world transaction. The sad part about this event is that it required years of review and expense to prove that a sale in the open market reflected value. In Michigan in 2014, the Court of Appeals heard a case presented at the Michigan Tax Tribunal which con­cluded in favor of the taxpayer, Lowe's Home Centers. The case is significant because the court accepted a market­ based value as true taxable value. The taxpayer's expert testified re­garding its appraisals and indicated that they were appraising fee simple interest or the value of the property to an owner, and at the highest and best use as a retail store, valued as vacant. They distinguished between existing facilities and build-to-suit facilities, ex­plaining that the subject property is an existing facility and that the build-to­ suit market rent or sale price is based upon cost of construction, whereas the existing market sale price or rent is a function of supply and demand in the marketplace. Basing his analysis on the above fun­damental premise, the taxpayer's ap­praiser valued the property in detail. Again, what makes this case signifi­cant is that the tribunal accepted the taxpayer's argument, and the court af­firmed that decision.

Incremental Acceptance
While these principles seem univer­sal, they have been rejected in many regions of our country. Tax-assessing communities wage battles to impose excessive values based on a rejection of the actual market. As most tax systems are based in the market value concept, the only resource for these taxing juris­dictions is to distort the concept. These issues are as old as dirt, but resolution remains elusive. The lesson here for the retail prop­erty owner appealing an assessment is to advance arguments that reflect real-world conditions supported by evi­dence. The decisions in these cases and others tell us that someone is listening to those arguments, and taking heed.

​Philip Giannuario is a partner at the Montclair New Jersey, law firm Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario. the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. Philip Giannuario can be reached at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Dec
05

In Tax Law, There Are No Insignificant Cases

Throughout the United States, taxpayers can expect to bear the burden of proof in property tax appeals. Standards vary by jurisdiction, but owners who seek to change a municipality’s assessment must convince a board or court that the property owner is correct in challenging the assessor’s conclusion. If they fail in that argument, the assessment remains unchanged.

Commercial taxpayers and their tax professionals often review decisions by local courts to glean direction and weigh prospects of a favorable outcome in their own cases. These stakeholders tend to only view complex commercial property cases for insight, ignoring residential and small commercial cases. But seemingly insignificant residential and small commercial cases are rich in detail that may aid taxpayers with a more sophisticated case when preparing to meet the standard of proof.

Some of these smaller cases shine a light on changing expectations of the court. For example, courts may begin to deem evidence that once would have been acceptable to meet the court’s threshold is no longer adequate. Thus, while the court does not change the law or create new standards, its interpretation of “sufficient competent evidence” may well move the goal post. The education obtained from these cases is not a guiding light to win a case, but rather a reminder of how not to lose one.

In New Jersey, law presumes that any property assessment is correct. Based on this presumption, any taxpayer appealing that valuation has the burden of proving the assessment is erroneous. The presumption is more than an allocation of which party carries the burden of proof. Rather, it expresses that in tax matters, the law presumes that the assessor correctly exercised their governmental authority. In a 1998 decision, MSGW Real Estate Fund vs. the Borough of Mountain Lak, the court stated that the presumption of correctness stands until sufficient competent evidence to the contrary is presented.

Courts must decide whether the evidence presented is sufficient to counter the assessor’s conclusion. To meet that standard, the evidence presented must be sufficient to determine the value of the property under appeal, thereby establishing the existence of a debatable question as to the correctness of the assessment.

This language is common in most jurisdictions. In New Jersey, it is also increasingly more common to see a change in the trial court’s interpretation of what meets the level of proof to question the assessor’s assumptions. The danger to taxpayers occurs when a court of special expertise establishes case law that, in effect, raises the standard of proof by simply increasing the evidence barrier to attain a reduction.

For example, in January of this year a New Jersey tax court decided Arteaga vs. Township of Wyckoff, where the taxpayer challenged the assessment of a single-family home assessed at approximately $900,000. The property owner offered an expert and an appraisal report for the years under appeal, while the municipality did not complete an appraisal, instead relying on the presumption of correctness.

The taxpayer’s expert cited three sales in a sales comparison and concluded a value of approximately $775,000. In a 10-page opinion, the court rejected the expert’s conclusions, finding fault with his adjustments to the comparable sales.

The court stated that an expert’s testimony must have a proper foundation to be of any value in an appeal. Citing earlier cases, the court stated that an expert must offer specific underlying reasons for their opinions, not mere conclusions. An expert witness is required to “give the why and wherefore of his expert opinion, not just a mere conclusion.” In this case, the court found that the plaintiff’s expert provided no substantive factual evidence to support the adjustments made.

The trend toward requiring a higher level of evidence has been growing over a number of years. As the court noted in a 1996 case, Hull function Holding Corp. vs. Princeton Borough, expert opinion unsupported by adequate facts has consistently been rejected by the tax court. Other rulings have stated that while the court has an obligation to apply its own judgment to valuation data submitted by experts in order to arrive at a true value and find an assessment for the years in question, the court must receive credible and competent evidence to make an independent finding of true value.

In the recent case, the court stated it was not provided with credible and competent evidence. As a result, the court had insufficient information from which to determine valuation. The court concluded that in general the expert provided no market analysis for any of the adjustments he made to his comparable sales.

The lesson to be learned: be aware of the potential of a new, heightened level of proof to establish a reduction. The case law has not been changed or altered. However, while most jurisdictions have case law suggesting that a court be mindful of the expense and reasonableness of data it should expect from a taxpayer to prove its case, trends have started to appear that swing the decisions toward a more difficult and expensive standard.

A number of recently decided residential tax appeals have followed this path to a find of no-change to the assessment. While the courts may be correct in the conclusions that evidence was lacking, they set a disturbing tone as to the level of expectation required for data to prove a value reduction.

The answer for taxpayers seeking a solution to this issue cannot be detailed so as to follow a definitive path to victory. For taxpayers seeking reductions in assessments, they must be aware and wary of not only the law, but the court’s most recent expectations.

Phil Giannuario photoPhilip Giannuario is a partner at the Montclair, N.J. law firm Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Taxc Counsel (APTC), the national affiliation of property tax attorneys.  Contact Philip at Ryan at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Jason at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Aug
03

Is Your Brownfield Being Fairly Assessed?

"While the case law and appraisal science continue to evolve, the framework for valuing properties subject to environmental contamination remains relatively unchanged..."

The legal and appraisal communities have embraced the notion that environmental contamination can impair real estate value. After all, a property's potential uses or limitations on those uses have a direct bearing on the asset's marketability and profit potential.

An investor seeking to rein-in the tax burden on a contaminated property must navigate a legislative and regulatory framework that imposes liability on the property owner for environmental cleanup costs and remediation. In addition to the value lost when a property is directly contaminated, properties in proximity to the contaminated site can also lose value because they are subject to contamination.The devil is in the details, however, and uantifying the direct or proximate impact on value can prove problematic.

The State of New Jersey is a leader in attempting to define the impact of contamination on property value, and its highest court discussed this perplexing problem in the 1980s case of Inmar Associates Inc. vs. Carlstadt.

The New Jersey Supreme Court recognized that the costs associated with cleaning up environmentally contaminated properties would have a depreciating effect upon the properties' true value. The court also noted that deducting those costs dollar-for-dollar from the true value of the property is an unacceptable methodology, and deferred to the appraisal community to arrive at an appropriate valuation method.

Years later, in the case of Metuchen vs. Borough of Metuchen, the court identified a procedure it found acceptable. Without question, uncontaminated land is worth more than contaminated land, the court reasoned. Therefore, as contaminated land is cleaned up, its value increases. The legal question is, how should this capitalization of the cleanup costs affect the market value of the subject property?

In Metuchen, the tax court used the principles established in Inmar to form a foundation or core principles for assessing the value of unused, contaminated property that is subject to mandatory cleanup at the owner's expense, at an estimated but undetermined cost. Those are: cleanup cost, the effect on market value, calculating the impact and treating the cost of cleanup as a depreciable capital improvement.

Taking the lead from the New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling in Inmar, the tax court in Metuchen deferred to the appraisers to determine the costs of cleanup and appropriate capitalization time period. The parties essentially agreed upon the unimpaired value of the property and the court easily reconciled the difference in opinion on cleanup costs.

While the case law and appraisal science continue to evolve, the framework for valuing properties subject to environmental contamination remains relatively unchanged since Metuchen. That formula entails discounting the present value of cleanup costs and subtracting that from the property's clean value.
Most recently, the tax court used the Metuchen formula to find value in an unreported decision.

While courts, property owners and assessors use the Metuchen formula to determine the value of contaminated land, this method fails to deal with other factors associated with contaminated sites. One of those factors is environmental stigma, a term the appraisal community uses in attempting to quantify the adverse effect on property value produced by the market's perception of increased risk. Even after environmental cleanup and remediation, environmental stigma may still lower the otherwise unimpaired property's value.

pgiannuarioPhilip J. Giannuario is a partner in the Montclair, NJ law firm Garippa, Lotz & Giannuario, the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel. He may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Aug
23

Don't Forfeit Your Right to a Tax Appeal

"In many cases, taxing jurisdictions cannot support or defend the values that are placed on those properties under appeal..."

By Philip J. Giannuario, as published by Commercial Property Executive Blog, August 2010

With real estate values down in all sectors across the nation, tax appeals are climbing to record numbers. In many cases, taxing jurisdictions cannot support or defend the values that are placed on those properties under appeal.

As municipal revenues run thin and state governments cut programs to balance their budgets, those governments understandably want to avoid returning significant amounts of money as tax refunds.

As a result, many taxing authorities are exploiting technicalities in state laws to seek dismissals of valid appeals. That makes it critically important that property owners stay abreast of all state requirements that may bear on tax appeals, and rigorously follow required procedures.

New Jersey's Chapter 91 statute provides a clear example of the kinds of technicalities state's employ. The statute requires the assessor to send a request to the owner of income-producing properties and ask for financial data related to the asset. The owner then has 45 days to respond to the demand. If the owner fails to respond in that time, he or she forfeits the right to challenge that year's assessment.

In a recent New Jersey case, a municipality moved to dismiss an appeal for a failure to respond to the income and expense request. The property owner had designated an agent to receive property tax notices and correspondence. Although the agent received the request, the agent failed to file the form with the municipality.

The owner argued that the strict words of the statute required the assessor to serve the owner directly. The court held that the only address on file was that of the agent, however, and reasoned that the owner was bound by the statute. On those grounds, the court dismissed the case.

The simple lesson to learn from this example is that a number of procedural hurdles exist in each state's tax law. Taxpayers must become knowledgeable about all applicable procedural rules and create failsafe, redundant systems to guard against the needless loss of their tax appeal rights.

Philip J. Giannuario is a partner in 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. Phil Giannuario can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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May
13

Industrial Equipment as Real Estate

"In point of fact, industrial property owners will save themselves time and trouble if they retain a knowledgeable property tax expert to help sort out the most defensible method for categorizing the various machinery, apparatus and equipment in their plants. At the same time, the New Jersey legislature would serve constituents well by clarifying once and for all the language defining what is and is not industrial machinery and equipment for property taxes purposes."

By Philip J. Giannuario, Esq., as published by Real Estate New Jersey, May 2007

Amazingly, every possibility exists that the major equipment in a New Jersey industrial plant is taxed as real property if the owner's case lands before one judge, but if a different judge hears the case, the equipment is not taxed as real property. How did New Jersey put industrial owners in this kind of dilemma and what can be done about it?

In 1990, the Tax Court heard the case of Texas Eastern v. Director, Div. Of Taxation, a case dealing with Texas Easter's gas pipeline distribution facility in New Jersey. The Court determined that the vast majority of the contested property was real property subject to local taxation. Based on the finding, Tax Eastern appealed.

In 1991, relying in part on Texas Eastern, the New Jersey Tax Court decided in the General Motors case that most of the major equipment in the case was real property subject to local taxation. Both this and the Texas Eastern decisions seemed at odds with legislative history-as far back as 1966, New Jersey sought to exclude business personal property (machinery, apparatus and equipment) from taxation as real property. No real property tax assessment can be levied on business personal property, thus, the more such property is defined as business personal property, to lower the real property tax assessment. As a result of these decision and others, in 1992, the legislature passed the Business Retention Act (BRA) to clarify what industrial equipment should be taxed as business personal property and which as real property. Despite BRA and the Appeals Court remanding the original General Motors case for retrial, the second General Motors trial, decided in 2002, resulted in a new judge ruling the same way the first judge had ruled in the original case.

As the original General Motors case, the Appeals Court remanded the Texas Eastern case to different judge for retrial. BRA, passed after both cases had been appealed, attempted to remind taxing authorities that business machinery, apparatus and equipment should not be taxed as real property but rather as personal business property. The Appeals Court appeared to understand the legislature's intent in BRA and remanded both cases to the original court for reconsideration. The new judge in Texas Eastern reconsidered the original court ruling in 2006 and concluded that none of the property was subject to taxation as real property. Much of the machinery and equipment in he Texas Eastern facility was comparable in size and quality to that in the General Motors plant. Despite the similarity, the Texas Eastern Court rendered a decision diametrically opposed to both decisions of the court in the General Motors case.

In Texas Eastern, the court stated that BRA sought more broadly to exclude from local property taxation personal property used or held for use in business. The Act came as a response to the prior decisions in General Motors and Texas Eastern and to cases like this where business equipment is taxed as real property rather than as personal property. The conflicting opinions in the General Motors case in 2002and Texas Eastern in 2006 create an anomalous situation for industrial taxpayers. Two directly opposite Tax Court decisions regarding BRA put taxpayers in a quandary. Do they account for equipment and machinery as business personal property or as real property? One judge ruled one way and another a different way. Since categorizing these assets as business personal property will reduce real property taxes, many taxpayers will, without too much thought, attempt to argue non-taxability as route to lower taxes. While simple on its face, this alterative could put some taxpayers at risk.

In point of fact, industrial property owners will save themselves time and trouble if they retain a knowledgeable property tax expert to help sort out the most defensible method for categorizing the various machinery, apparatus and equipment in their plants. At the same time, the New Jersey legislature would serve constituents well by clarifying once and for all the language defining what is and is not industrial machinery and equipment for property taxes purposes. The state needs stability in this critical area. Conflicting options on the tax law disadvantage any taxpayer that needs to make cogent decisions about investment and taxes in this state.

Philip J. Giannuario is a partner in the Montclair, NJ law firm Garippa Lotz and Giannuario, the New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania member of American Property Tax Counsel, the national affiliation of property tax attorneys. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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