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JANE STRAYER HESS AND LAWRENCE EUGENE HESS v. MONTGOMERY COUNTY BOARD ASSESSMENT APPEALS (06/13/83)

COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: June 13, 1983.

JANE STRAYER HESS AND LAWRENCE EUGENE HESS, JR., APPELLANTS
v.
MONTGOMERY COUNTY BOARD OF ASSESSMENT APPEALS, APPELLEE

Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County in case of Jane Strayer Hess and Lawrence Eugene Hess, Jr. v. Montgomery County Board of Assessment Appeals, No. 79-14568.

COUNSEL

Lawrence Eugene Hess, Jr., for appellants.

Bruce J. Eckel, Assistant County Solicitor, with him David M. McGlaughlin, Assistant County Solicitor, and Frederic M. Wentz, County Solicitor, for appellees.

President Judge Crumlish, Jr. and Judges Rogers, Blatt, Craig and MacPhail. Opinion by Judge MacPhail.

Author: Macphail

[ 75 Pa. Commw. Page 70]

Appellants*fn1 have brought this appeal from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County which rejected their constitutional challenge*fn2 to the provisions of the Pennsylvania Farmland and Forest Land Assessment Act of 1974 (Act)*fn3 which place a ten acre minimum area requirement on the availability of preferential tax treatment for "forest reserves".*fn4

Appellants own property located in Upper Dublin Township which includes six acres of forest land. Appellants applied for a preferential property tax assessment for their forest land pursuant to the provisions of the Act which prescribe procedures for obtaining preferential tax assessments for land devoted

[ 75 Pa. Commw. Page 71]

    to agricultural use, agricultural reserve use and forest reserve use.*fn5 As will be seen, the Act constitutes the implementing legislation for the authority granted to the General Assembly by Article 8, Section 2(b)(i) of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Pa. Const. art. VIII, § 2(b)(i).

"Forest reserves" are defined by the Act as follows:

Land, ten acres or more, stocked by forest trees of any size and capable of producing timber or other wood products.

Section 2 of the Act, 72 P.S. § 5490.2. Appellants' application for a preferential assessment was denied by the Board of Assessment Appeals because the subject property consists of less than ten contiguous acres of land. On appeal to the common pleas court, Appellants' sole argument was that the ten acre minimum area limitation for preferential tax assessments violates the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Pa. Const. art. VIII, § 1. The court concluded that preferential tax assessments for forest reserves are specifically allowed by Article 8, Section 2(b)(i) of the Pennsylvania Constitution, and that the ten acre qualification for forest reserves is a reasonable prerequisite for preferential tax relief. The instant appeal followed.

Appellants have renewed their argument before this Court that the uniformity clause is violated by the Act's requirement that a property must consist of ten or more acres of what Appellants term "forest land"

[ 75 Pa. Commw. Page 72]

    in order to qualify for a preferential assessment as a "forest reserve". The Appellants, of course, bear a heavy burden of proof in challenging the constitutionality of the Act. Amidon v. Kane, 444 Pa. 38, 279 A.2d 53 (1971).

The requirement of uniform taxation is set forth in Article VIII, Section 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, as follows:

All taxes shall be uniform, upon the same class of subjects, within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax, and shall be levied and collected under general laws.

Article VIII, Section 2(b)(i) of the Constitution,*fn6 however, now grants to the General Assembly the power to:

Establish standards and qualifications for private forest reserves, agriculture reserves, and land actively devoted to agricultural use, and make special provision for the taxation thereof. . . . (Emphasis added.)

Appellants contend that although Section 2(b)(i) does authorize special tax treatment for forest reserves, the uniformity clause remains applicable and requires that all forest land be treated alike without regard to acreage. This case presents a matter of first impression.

The uniformity clause has long been construed to require that real estate, as a subject for taxation, be treated as a single class entitled to uniform treatment.

[ 75 Pa. Commw. Page 73]

"forest reserve" and clearly does not require that all forest land be considered forest reserve land, without regard to size. The Constitution, instead, authorizes the General Assembly to "establish standards and qualifications for private forest reserves". (Emphasis added.) As we have seen, the General Assembly has exercised its constitutional power to establish standards and qualifications for "forest reserves" and in so doing has included a minimum size limitation of ten acres. In view of the General Assembly's clear constitutional power to define what constitutes a forest reserve for special tax treatment, we cannot accept Appellants' argument that the definition adopted is invalid or that the uniformity clause mandates a different definition.

We conclude that Appellants have failed to meet their heavy burden of demonstrating that the Act clearly and plainly violates the Constitution and will, accordingly, affirm the order of the court of common pleas.

Order

The order of the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, No. 79-14568, dated February 26, 1982, is hereby affirmed.

Disposition

Affirmed.


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