A Hall County jury this week overturned the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors’ appraised values of 58 vacant lots at a Braselton subdivision in a court case that the plaintiffs believe should set a precedent for similar appraisals.
The board expressed satisfaction with the verdict, however, which reduced the appraised value of the lots in dispute by 16 to 21 percent.
Frank Norton Jr. of North Georgia Growth Fund appealed the 2009 appraisals of the properties at Riverbend at Mulberry Park off Winder Highway, claiming that the values of between $50,000 and $53,000 per lot were in excess of fair market value.
According to minutes of a September 2009 meeting of the board of equalization, Norton told the board that construction was “at a standstill” and believed the fair market value for the parcels was about $17,900 each, which was the price North Georgia Growth Fund paid for each of the 58 lots.
After a two-day trial in Hall County Superior Court, a jury sided with Norton but did not lower the appraisals as much as asked.
The jury found that the Board of Tax Assessors did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the assessments were at fair market value.
But the jury also found that the value asserted by Norton was unreasonable.
The jury lowered the fair market value of each parcel to $42,424.
Norton’s attorney, Steven Gilliam, said the jury was asked to consider appraisals of between $17,900 and $32,500 for the parcels.
Appeals of tax appraisals are often mediated and sometimes heard by judges, but it is unusual for them to be tried before a jury.
“We felt it was important that a jury hear how the Hall County Tax Assessors Office was assessing these lots,” Gilliam said. “It’s not only affecting North Georgia growth fund, it’s affecting every owner of subdivisions in Hall County where lots have been assessed. All of them have been assessed using the same method, and this jury has said that method is not valid.”
Gilliam said the tax assessors use of mass appraisals for vacant, developed lots was improper, and the jury’s verdict showed that.
“It’s really precedent-setting,” he said.
Gilliam said he believed the board needed to revisit 2010 and 2009 assessments of other undeveloped lots in subdivisions. He noted that surrounding counties have lowered their assessments of such land.
“Hall County assessed this property the same amount (as previous years) without taking into account the current economic conditions,” Gilliam said.
Joey Homans, the attorney representing the board, said valuations were based on completed lots in the subdivision, of which there are about 100. The appraiser discounted the sale price of the 58 lots because he deemed it to be “so far below market value that there must be some distress associated with that sale,” Homans said.
Homans said the board members were in the courtroom when the jury came back late Wednesday.
“They were satisfied with the verdict,” Homans said.
Gilliam said the board should change its methods for appraising vacant subdivision lots or expect to be in court again.
“If the tax assessors don’t change their method, there will be another appeal filed,” Gilliam said.