Thursday, June 12, 2014

Board Finds that Assessor with Burden Failed to Support Value of Agricultural Land

Excerpts of the Board's Determination follow:

19. The statutory and regulatory scheme for assessing agricultural land requires the Board to treat challenges to those assessments differently than other assessment challenges. For example, the legislature directed the Department of Local Government Finance (“DLGF”) to promulgate guidelines for assessing agricultural land using distinctive factors, such as soil productivity, that do not apply to other types of land. Ind. Code § 6-1.1-4-13. The DLGF determines a statewide base rate by taking a rolling average of capitalized net income from agricultural land. See 2011 REAL PROPERTY ASSESSMENT GUIDELINES, Chapter 2 at 77-78; see also I.C. § 6-1.1-4-4.5(e) (directing the DLGF to use a six-year, instead of a four-year, rolling average and to eliminate from the calculation the year for which the highest market value-in-use is determined). Assessors then adjust that base rate according to soil productivity factors. Depending on the type of agricultural land at issue, assessors may then apply influence factors in predetermined amounts. 2011 GUIDELINES, Chapter 2 at 77, 89, 98-99. For example, agricultural woodland (Type 6), which the Guidelines define as “land supporting trees capable of producing timber or other wood products” that “has 50% or more canopy cover or is a permanently planted reforested area,” receives an 80% negative influence factor. Id. at 89.

20. The Respondent correctly points out that I.C. § 6-1.1-4-13 requires land to be devoted to agricultural use before it can be classified and assessed as agricultural. The Assessor cites to an Indiana Tax Court case and the Guidelines which state that land devoted to agricultural use involves, among other things, the cultivation of income-producing crops. Respondent Exhibit 17 (parcel 382); Respondent Exhibit 18 (parcel 009).

21. But the Respondent’s focus on the use of the property is misplaced. Respondent concedes that the property is agricultural. The 2011 and 2012 property record cards for both parcels reflect that the subject properties were classified as agricultural vacant land at all relevant times. Respondent Exhibits 5, 10. Furthermore, the Respondent calculates the assessment by applying the 2012 agricultural base rate to both parcels. Because the parties agree the property is correctly classified as agricultural, the Board finds that the property is devoted to agricultural use as contemplated in the statute.

22. The Respondent argues that in 2011, the property was incorrectly classified as “agricultural land that was soil-typed.” Dunning testimony. The Respondent therefore removed the “soil-typing classification” for 2012 and assessed the property as “agricultural excess acreage” at the statewide agricultural land base rate of $1,630 an acre. Id. Ms. Dunning expressed her rationale as follows:

And to me I feel that it is the purpose of agricultural excess acreage to use the agricultural base rate which is way under what is sells for but it is not soil-typed. So that’s why the county did remove the soil-typing because it is not an income property and devoting land to agricultural use involves cultivation of the land for income purposes.

Id. Regardless of the rationale, the Respondent simply deleted the 2011 influence factors for portions of the parcel that were previously categorized as tillable, nontillable, or woodlands.

23. Whatever Ms. Dunning’s feelings may be on the matter, the law does not support her interpretation of the assessment rules. “Agricultural excess acreage,” also termed “Type 92” is a subtype of “Type 9 Homesite.” 2011 GUIDELINES, Chapter 2 at 105. Agricultural excess acreage is defined as land “dedicated to a non-agricultural use normally associated with the homesite,” and it is intended to apply to “areas containing a large manicured yard over and above the accepted one acre homesite.” Id. at 105-6. While it is true that a soil-type is not applied, nor is the agricultural base rate: “the agricultural excess acre rate is the same rate that is established for the residential excess acre category.” Id. The Guidelines are clear and unambiguous.

24. Moreover, the Guidelines do not contemplate any circumstance where the agricultural base rate is applied without the agricultural land categories and their influence factors:

Land purchased and used for an agricultural purpose qualifies for all land use types associated with the agricultural classification and agricultural soil productivity method of pricing. This includes cropland or pasture land (i.e., tillable land) as well as woodlands.

2011 GUIDELINES, Chapter 2 at 80. The Board does not find any authority for the proposition that a soil type or category is applied solely to income-producing agricultural property. To the contrary, Type 4 specifically references “idle cropland,” and Type 5 references nontillable land “covered with brush or scattered trees with less than 50% canopy cover, or permanent pasture land with natural impediments that deter the use of the land for crop production.” Id. at 103, 104. These are obviously non-income producing uses of agricultural property. They also mirror the Respondent’s allegations regarding the Petitioner’s use of the subject property.

25. Respondent’s own Exhibit 19, a DLGF memorandum, contains an example in section 8(a) that Ms. Relos-Penrose recites verbatim in her testimony. The example states that land left “uncultivated and fallow” such that it becomes covered with “scattered trees and brush” is still considered agricultural, and it is in error to apply excess acreage rather than the “agricultural soil productivity factor.” Respondent Exhibit 19. The example concludes that the land should be assessed as “non-tillable land as defined in the Guidelines.” Id. (emphasis added). Yet Ms. Relos-Penrose somehow comes to the conclusion that it should be “assessed as agricultural,” but “not assessed using the soil productivity method.” The Board finds that this example in the DLGF memo unequivocally directs assessors to use an agricultural soil productivity factor (i.e. the Type 5 nontillable land category and its influence factor) without regard to whether the land is income-producing.

26. In order for the Respondent to present a prima facie case for an assessment based on agricultural excess acreage, the Respondent must introduce evidence of a homesite and how the excess acreage relates to it. The Respondent has failed to do so. 

27. In order for the Respondent to present a prima facie case for an agricultural assessment, the Respondent must introduce evidence of the land use types to be applied to the agricultural acreage. See 2011 GUIDELINES, Chapter 2 at 80, 102. The Respondent has failed to do so.

28. The Respondent presented four sales of vacant land. Respondent Exhibits 13-15 (parcel 382); Respondent Exhibits 14-16 (parcel 009). Respondent fails to explain to the Board what relevance these comparables have to the issues before the Board.

29. The Respondent fails to make a prima facie case that the assessments of the subject parcels are correct. Where the party with the burden has not supported its claims with probative evidence, the opposing party’s duty to offer substantial evidence of the correct assessment is not triggered. See Lacy Diversified Indus. v. Dep’t of Local Gov’t Fin., 799 N.E.2d 1215, 1221-1222 (Ind. Tax Ct. 2003). The effect of this finding returns the valuation to the prior year’s assessment. Because the Petitioner seeks the 2011 valuation, the Board will not review the Petitioner’s evidence.