The Supreme Court of Georgia has sided with five marina owners in an appeals case against the Hall County Board of Tax Assessors.
According to an opinion released Monday, the board failed to follow state law and schedule a settlement conference within 45 days of receiving the property owners' notice they planned to appeal their property tax assessments.
Therefore, Justice Michael P. Boggs wrote in the opinion that the high court affirms the lower court's ruling.
The five marinas all lease shoreline property on Lake Lanier from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and all five have added, and own, improvements to the marinas, including docks, swim platforms, bathhouses and restaurants and stores, all of which are assessed for ad valorem taxation purchases.
In 2015, the county changed the assessments and made docks and additions valued as the companies' leasehold interest and valued and taxed them as attachments to the realty. Before 2015, those items were taxed separately as personal property. As a result, appraisal values were much higher than previously assessed.
Specifically, between 2014 and 2015, the assessments for:
- Westrec Properties rose from $161,383 to $4.9 million, nearly a 3,000 percent increase;
- PS Recreational Properties rose from $1.26 million to $24.5 million, more than a 1,800 percent increase;
- Chattahoochee Parks rose from $396,751 to $13.2 million, more than a 3,200 percent increase;
- March First rose from $845,188 to $4.3 million, more than a 400 percent increase;
- AMP III-Lazy Days rose from $1.23 million to $5.5 million, nearly a 350 percent increase.
Following the 2015 Notice of Assessment, all five marinas appealed the appraisal value to the Hall County Board of Equalization and at a hearing, attorneys for the businesses appealed the 2015 assessment, arguing on the grounds of uniformity and valuation. They also said the proper value of the properties should be the same as the 2014 assessment and should be taxed as personal property versus real property or real estate.
On January 1, 2016, House Bill 202 went in to effect, which amends a Georgia code that deals with ad valorem tax appeals. One of the changes required a settlement conference with the Board of Tax Assessors and the tax payer must be scheduled within 45 days of a tax payer's notice to appeal. If not, “then the appeal shall terminate and the taxpayer’s stated value shall be entered in the records of the board of tax assessors as the fair market value for the year under appeal.”
The marinas filed on January 8, 2016. The board did not issue a notice of settlement conference within 45 days (by February 22, 2016) and the attorneys for the marinas mailed a notice of the board's failure to provide a settlement notice on March 8, 2016.
An email from the board on June 10, 2016 indicated they would hold the settlement conference on June 20, 2016. The settlement conference was subsequently held, but the parties were unable to agree on a fair market value of the properties and litigation proceeded. In July of 2016, a Hall County judge ruled in favor of the marinas, ordering that the Board of Tax Assessors enter into its records the 2014 value of the marinas and reimburse them for attorneys’ fees. The Board then appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing in part that the Act is unconstitutional because it usurps the function of the judiciary and thus violates the constitutional separation of powers clause.
The board argued that the termination of the appeal, based on the failure to meet the requirement to schedule a settlement conference, divests the superior court of “jurisdiction,” or its authority, after it has already taken jurisdiction over the appeal. The board also argued that such legislative action interferes with the superior court by taking away its power to decide a case already pending in its court.
In the 18 page opinion, the Supreme Court disagreed with the board's arguments. “The requirements imposed by the Act do not remove a case from the jurisdiction of the superior court. Rather, they are part of an administrative procedure that, like many others, imposes threshold conditions before the appeal reaches the jurisdiction of the superior court.... The Act does not change this long-standing administrative process, but simply provides for additional requirements to be met, by both the Board and the taxpayer, before the appeal is ‘officially filed in superior court.'"
“The Board failed to give the required notice within the 45 day time period mandated by § 48-5-311 (g) (2), and therefore elected not to have a settlement conference,” the opinion concluded. “It is accordingly subject to the penalty provided by the legislature in the same subsection.” Thus, the trial court's decision in favor of the marinas was upheld.