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Charleston County Assessor v. University Ventures, LLC

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

September 14, 2017

Charleston County Assessor, Appellant,
University Ventures, LLC, Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2015-001106

          Heard January 25, 2017

         Appeal From The Administrative Law Court Shirley C. Robinson, Administrative Law Judge

          Bernard E. Ferrara, Jr., Joseph Dawson, III, Austin Adams Bruner, and Johanna Serrano Gardner, all of North Charleston, for Appellant.

          Morris Arthur Ellison and William Thomas Dawson, III, both of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, LLP, of Charleston, for Respondent.

          KONDUROS, J.

         In this tax reassessment case, the Charleston County Assessor (the Assessor) appeals the administrative law court (ALC) finding the assessed value for 2011 of property owned by University Ventures LLC was incorrect. The Assessor contends the ALC erred in determining (1) the reassessment cycle at issue began in 2005 and (2) the property should be valued as a vacant lot. We affirm in part and reverse in part.


         This case involves the procedure for tax assessment of property in South Carolina. We provide an overview of the law governing tax assessment prior to discussing the facts.

         The South Carolina Constitution directs the General Assembly to create the method by which property in South Carolina should be taxed. See S.C. Const. art. X, § 6. ("The General Assembly shall establish, through the enactment of general law . . . the method of assessment of real property within the State that shall apply to each political subdivision within the State."); Simkins v. City of Spartanburg, 269 S.C. 243, 247, 237 S.E.2d 69, 71 (1977) ("[A]ssessment means the value placed upon property for the purpose of taxation by officials appointed for that purpose."). Accordingly, the General Assembly has established the process through which property is to be assessed through statutory scheme. "All property must be assessed uniformly and equitably throughout the State." S.C. Code Ann. § 12-43-210(A) (2014).

         Additionally, the legislature has dictated that reassessment[1] happen once every five years. See S.C. Code Ann. § 12-43-217(A) (2014) ("Notwithstanding any other provision of law, once every fifth year each county or the State shall appraise and equalize those properties under its jurisdiction."). It has also provided: "Property valuation must be complete at the end of December of the fourth year . . . . In the fifth year, the county or State shall implement the program and assess all property on the newly appraised values." Id. Additionally, "[n]o reassessment program may be implemented in a county unless all real property in the county, including real property classified as manufacturing property, is reassessed in the same year." S.C. Code Ann. § 12-43-210(B) (2014). Section 12-43-217(B) allows the implementation of the five-year-reassessment program to be postponed one year. See S.C. Code Ann. § 12-43-217(B) ("A county by ordinance may postpone for not more than one property tax year the implementation of revised values resulting from the equalization program provided pursuant to subsection (A).").

         The amount the value of real property can be increased for each five-year reassessment is limited to 15%. See S.C. Const. art. X, § 6 ("Each political subdivision shall value real property by a method in which the value of each parcel of real property, adjusted for improvements and losses, does not increase more than fifteen percent every five years unless . . . an assessable transfer of interest[2] occurs."); S.C. Code Ann. § 12-37-3140(B) (2014) ("Any increase in the fair market value of real property attributable to the periodic countywide appraisal and equalization program implemented pursuant to [s]ection 12-43-217 is limited to fifteen percent within a five-year period to the otherwise applicable fair market value. This limit must be calculated on the land and improvements as a whole.").

However, this limit does not apply to the fair market value of additions or improvements[3] to real property in the year those additions or improvements are first subject to property tax, nor do[es it] apply to the fair market value of real property when an assessable transfer of interest occurred in the year that the transfer value is first subject to tax.

§ 12-37-3140(B). A new structure cannot "be listed or assessed for property tax until it is completed and fit for the use for which it is intended, " which is shown "by the issuance of the certificate of occupancy or the structure actually is occupied if no certificate is issued." S.C. Code Ann. § 12-37-670 (2014).


         On December 5, 2006, University Ventures purchased vacant land located in North Charleston for $1, 253, 224. In April of 2008, University Ventures received a building permit and began construction on the land of a 115-room Hampton Inn and Suites, with the construction cost estimated at $7, 952, 998. The hotel was completed, and a certificate of occupancy was issued on April 22, 2009. The Assessor issued a 2010 tax assessment for the property with a value of $8, 180, 000, which University Ventures did not challenge.

         The Assessor conducted a reassessment with a uniform date of value of December 31, 2008. On May 21, 2009, Charleston County Council adopted an ordinance[4]providing for the postponement of the implementation of the 2010 revised values resulting from the next county-wide equalization program until 2011.[5]

         The Assessor sent a notice of reassessment dated June 30, 2011, to University Ventures, stating the property's fair market value for the 2011 Reassessment was $9, 630, 000 based on a date of value of December 31, 2008, but was limited by the 15% cap on increases in value at $9, 407, 000.[6] In September 2011, University Ventures objected to the valuation for the property. The Assessor reviewed the valuation and made no adjustment.

         University Ventures applied for review by the Charleston County Board of Assessment Appeals (the Board). Following a conference, the Board determined because the hotel was incomplete at the end of 2008, the property should be assessed as vacant land and valued it at $628, 439.

         The Assessor filed a request for a contested case hearing with the ALC. At the hearing, Walter L. Ziegler, Sr., who was employed by and performed appraisals for the Assessor's Office, testified the property was valued at $404, 000 for both the 2008 and 2009 tax bills. He provided that once the hotel was finished in 2009, the Assessor sent University Ventures an assessment dated May 14, 2010, valuing the property at $8, 180, 000. He testified the tax bill was for hotel, land, and improvements, which were valued at $8, 180, 000. He further testified that for the county-wide reassessment issued in 2011, the Assessor valued the property at $9, 630, 000 but the increase was limited to $9, 407, 000 because of the 15% cap. On cross-examination, Ziegler indicated the last general five-year reassessment done for the county was based on values as of December 31, 2003. He stated he was unsure in what year that reassessment was supposed to have taken place but he knew it was delayed one year. He also noted that assessment was actually implemented in 2005. He further explained reassessment was to be performed every five years according to state statute. However, he testified the next reassessment was supposed to be completed in 2010. He provided it was supposed to be implemented in 2010 and it was delayed until 2011. He recapped that implementation for the reassessments was delayed for 2004 until 2005 and for 2010 until 2011.

         Both sides presented real estate appraisal experts who testified as to the value of the property. The Assessor's expert provided a value of the property on December 31, 2008, based on the hypothetical assumption the hotel was complete at that time. He valued it at $8, 861, 350 for tax assessment purposes. He believed the hotel was 65% to 70% complete on December 31, 2008, but he did not examine the property until 2014. He testified the value of the land alone on December 31, 2008, was $990, 000. Alternatively, University Ventures' expert testified the value of the land alone on December 31, 2008, was $734, 000. He indicated the hotel was 65% complete on December 31, 2008. He placed the hypothetical value of the hotel on December 31, 2008, if it had been complete, at $8, 450, 000. He testified the actual value of the hotel on that date was $3, 959, 400. He provided he had never heard of a building being taxed on its value as a partially complete building; he believed property could only be taxed on the value of the land until the building was completed.

         Following the hearing, the ALC determined the Assessor had misapplied section 12-43-217 of the South Carolina Code and because the improvements-the hotel- were not completed at the time of the valuation date, the property was appropriately valued as vacant land. The ALC found the preponderance of the evidence supported University Ventures' position the reassessment cycle at issue was comprised of the years 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. The ALC determined the Assessor implemented the reassessment using the wrong years- 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010. The ALC calculated the value for the land value to be $860, 537 by averaging the experts' values of the unimproved land. This appeal followed.

         STANDARD ...

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