Town’s Failure to Treat Property Owner Fairly Leads to Reversal by Appellate Division

by: Anthony F. Della Pelle
13 May 2013

A New Jersey appellate court recently reversed a trial court’s dismissal of a tax appeal, and found that the City of North Wildwood failed to act fairly in litigation with the property owner.  The property at issue is improved with a seven-story mixed-use tower, a 160-slip marina and a 3900 square-foot marina services building, and a one-story restaurant.  Plaintiff Beach Creek owns the land underlying the Towers but not the condominium units. The owner of the tower has a ninety-nine-year lease for the land underlying the Towers, and the rent is income to Beach Creek.  Following a revaluation in 2006, the City increased the assessed value of Beach Creek’s property from $1,526,200 for 2005, with an equalized value of $3,225,247, to $14,612,900 for 2006. The City assessed the property at $14,288,900, for 2007 and 2008. Beach Creek filed a timely challenge to its 2007 assessment on March 15, 2007 and a timely challenge to its 2008 assessment on March 24, 2008.  Beach Creek filed tax appeals for 2007 and 2008, and an action in the Chancery Division to challenge the 2006 assessment.

In connection with the pending Tax Court actions, the City obtained an appraisal report from its expert on March 12, 2009 which concluded that the “retrospective market value of [Beach Creek’s] property for 2006-2009 tax years” was $4.6 million.  The City provided its appraisal to Beach Creek in discovery and filed it with the Tax Court.  As of March 2009, the City had information that the full and fair value of the property in 2007 and 2008 was nearly $10 million lower than the assessed value for those years, and the City thereafter assessed the property at $4.6 million for 2010.

At trial before the Tax Court, Beach Creek’s expert separately valued the different uses on the property after determining that the most reliable appraisal would be one reached by using the valuation method most appropriate for each of the property’s several components.  Beach Creek’s expert used the income approach in valuing the marina and the land underlying the Towers, the cost approach to value the marina services building, and the sales comparison approach to value the restaurant. The value he assigned to the entire property for 2007 and 2008 is the total of the separate values of the components in each of those years.

At the conclusion of Beach Creek’s case, the Tax Court granted the City’s motion to dismiss concluding that Beach Creek had not produced evidence sufficiently definite, positive and certain in quality and quantity to overcome the presumption of validity that attaches to the assessment under New Jersey law. R. 4:37-2(b); Pantasote Co. v. City of Passaic, 100 N.J. 408, 412-14 (1985).  The court first determined that the hybrid approach used by Beach Creek’s expert of “taking one approach for each of the three or four aspects of the property and then somehow just adding them together and coming up to value,” was unprecedented.  Next, the court found Beach Creek’s expert’s application of the cost and comparable sales approaches flawed, and therefore the court had no basis for assigning a true value to the property based on Beach Creek’s evidence.

On appeal, the Appellate Division found Beach Creek’s evidence was adequate to withstand the City’s motion. As to a lack of precedent for the hybrid valuation approach, the Appellate Division cited to Livingston Mall Corp. v. Livingston Twp., 15 N.J. Tax 505, 508-09 (Tax 1996), where the court was faced with valuing a mall that included three anchor department stores and non-anchor mall stores that were leased. The Livingston Mall court concluded that the income approach failed to capture the value of the anchor stores because of a lack of data, and therefore it would be appropriate to use the cost approach for the anchor stores, and the income approach for the non-anchor stores which were leased.

Finally, the Appellate Division found the City’s moving for dismissal based on Beach Creek’s failure to overcome the presumption of validity raised a serious question about the City’s performance of its obligation under F.M.C. Stores Co. v. Borough of Morris Plains, 100 N.J. 418, 426 (1985), to “turn square corners” in litigation.  The City, intending to rely on the $4.6 million appraisal at trial, was in possession of evidence that the 2007 and 2008 assessments were grossly erroneous. The Appellate Division found the City’s actions were inconsistent with its obligation to “comport itself with compunction and integrity.”  Thus, the Appellate Division rejected the court’s conclusion that Beach Creek failed to overcome the presumption of the validity afforded to the quantum of these $14.3 million assessments for 2007 and 2008.  The undisputed evidence in the City’s report established that the $14.3 million assessments for 2007 and 2008 were well off the $4.6 million report value, and that sufficient to overcome any presumption that the assessments’ quantum was valid.

As outlined in F.M.C. Stores, the square corners doctrine requires that no government action be taken in litigation with the aim of gaining an unfair advantage over a private citizen.  Thus, the government may not “conduct itself so as to achieve or preserve any kind of bargaining or litigational advantage” over a member of the public.  As the F.M.C. Court observed, this means that “government may have to forego the freedom of action that private citizens may employ in dealing with one another.”Litigation strategies and actions that may be expected in litigation between two private parties will be scrutinized when taken on behalf of a government agency in litigation with a provide citizen.

The property owner in Livingston Mall Corp. v. Livingston Twp., 15 N.J. Tax 505, 508-09 (Tax 1996) was represented by Thomas Olson, Esq. of McKirdy & Riskin, P.A.

A copy of the Tax Court’s opinion in Beach Creek Marina v. North Wildwood City may be found here.