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Lake dwellers should brace for higher property values
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Tom and Betty Vivelo added a garage since buying their Nacoochee Trail home in 1997. The vegetable garden is Betty Vivelo’s project; the concrete blocks are for Tom Vivelo’s landscaping project behind the garage. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Lake Lanier property owners can start bracing now for sticker shock when assessment notices are mailed May 16.

“Some of the increases that we are making are not going to be offset by any kind of (tax) rate decrease,” Chief Appraiser Steve Watson said. “In some cases, they may, but I’d say that would be the exception, not the rule.”
Hall County’s 2014 tax digest is still a work in progress.

The reassessments shouldn’t come as a major surprise, as the county announced in August it was embarking on a “real estate equalization project involving an in-depth study of lakefront property values and how they align with lakefront property sales.”

Still, some homeowners, such as Tom Vivelo, who lives off Nacoochee Trail in South Hall, are anxious about the forthcoming notice.

“I don’t know exactly where I fit in,” he said. “But I’m going to guess my property taxes are going to double. It never has been reassessed, to my knowledge, other than when I first moved here and put a garage up.”

Vivelo has lived at his house for 17 years.

A PowerPoint presentation Watson has put together on the issue states that a countywide revaluation where lakefront property values were adjusted along with all other residential property was done in 2007.

Then, the economy crashed. And, in 2009, staff was cut back countywide and the assessors office lost four positions. The county couldn’t raise values from 2009 to 2011 because of a state-imposed valuation moratorium.

In 2012, “we were trying to finish up trying to respond to the downturn in the economy, with the other 60,000 or 70,000 parcels we’ve got in the county,” said Watson, who has been in his post since April 2011. “We were having lower property values on a wholesale basis.”

As the economy started its uptick in 2013, “we started to increase values in some cases, which didn’t include lakefront properties at that time,” he said. “We didn’t have the staff to do the review we needed to do on (them).”

To help with that effort, the county ended up hiring GMASS Inc. of Dawsonville in late July, a contract that cost $327,500. GMASS has conducted residential, land and commercial and industrial appraisals in other Georgia counties, including Gwinnett, Barrow, Dawson and Franklin.

“In the past, we’ve been overassessing regular, non-lakefront property, but we’ve been significantly underassessing lakefront property,” Watson said. “And, of course, the goal is to get them all on the same page. Now, we’re seeing a reason to raise even non-lakefront property, which we’re in the process of doing at the same time.

“So, it’s not like we’re just picking lakefront property out and ... increasing their values this year and not paying attention to everything else. It’s just that what we’re doing is we’re not disregarding lakefront property anymore.”
Watson’s presentation gives some examples of value gaps, including a North Hall home with a fair market value of $1.3 million that sold for $2.8 million in 2013.

“The land (alone) is probably worth $1.3 million,” he said.

Also, officials are placing values on boat docks around the lake.

“We (went out on) a boat and surveyed the entire (Army) Corps of Engineers property in Hall County,” Watson said.

The corps has issued 5,003 permits for docks.

“We discovered 1,820 boat docks that we did not have (on record), that have never been in the tax digest,” Watson said. “Boat docks are taxable and are part of the consideration when people buy and sell lakefront property — not only whether it has a boat dock, but whether it can have a boat dock.”

The docks alone could add $18 million — or an average of $10,000 for each dock — to the tax rolls.

As for how the reassessments overall will affect the digest, Watson said efforts are ongoing and “I’m not ready to release any kind of estimates.”

He did say a preliminary digest will be released soon to governmental bodies that deal with setting tax rates.

Richard Mecum, chairman of the Hall County Board of Commissioners, said he is eager to get information about the assessments.

“I’d like to see a spreadsheet on it, (showing) what does all this really mean, how does it impact people, how many people and how much of an impact,” he said.

Mary Thompson, who specializes in lakefront appraisals, said she believes many people will be “in for a rude awakening” come tax time.

However, “others may benefit if the appraisers do not realize the value of some of these lake lots,” she said. “I am sure that in most every case those tax assessments will rise. How much is anyone’s guess, and it is the how much that might benefit some lake homeowners.”

Vivelo said he believes that the county trying to reclaim value in one year “is going to be very painful for a lot of people.”

He believes the county should consider phasing in the impact over several years, especially as the county should have been keeping pace with values all along.

But phasing in the full effect of revaluations — over three years, for example — raises other issues, Watson said.
For one thing, he said, the county is accountable to the state Department of Revenue on its tax digest.

“They’re going to judge us based on where the property values are, so if I kind of get (them) up a little bit, they’re going to say, ‘We appreciate your efforts, but we need you to get to fair market value,’” he said.

The other hitch is constantly increasing values.

“By the time I get to that third year, I’m probably going to need to (reassess) again,” he said.

“Once we get to a happy place, with getting things to a level playing field, as years go by, we might be able to make automated increases to property values on more of a wholesale basis.”