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Melcher v. Berks County Bd. of Assessment Appeals

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

June 4, 2014

Beverly A. Melcher
v.
Berks County Board of Assessment Appeals, Appellant

Argued May 13, 2014.

Appealed from No. 13-2780. Common Pleas Court of the County of Berks. Lash, J.

Edwin L. Stock, Reading, for appellant.

Jeffrey C. Karver, Boyertown, for appellee.

BEFORE: HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge. OPINION BY JUDGE BROBSON.

OPINION

Page 523

P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge

Appellant Berks County Board of Assessment Appeals (Board) appeals from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County (trial court), dated September 17, 2013. The trial court sustained the appeal of Beverly A. Melcher (Landowner), thereby reversing the Board's decision to terminate the preferential tax assessment of Landowner's property and impose roll-back taxes pursuant to the Pennsylvania Farmland and Forest Land Assessment Act of 1974, commonly referred to as " Act 319" or the " Clean and Green Act" (Act).[1] For the reasons set forth below, we now affirm.

The Act provides preferential real estate tax assessment for land based upon its use for agricultural purposes or as agricultural or forest reserves, provided that it complies with certain statutory requirements. See Section 3 of the Act, 72 P.S. § 5490.3.

Page 524

If a landowner changes the use of any tract of land subject to preferential assessment under the Act, such that the tract no longer qualifies for the preferential assessment, the preferential assessment is revoked and the landowner is retroactively subjected to roll-back taxes.[2] See Section 5.1 of the Act, 72 P.S. § 5490.5a. Notwithstanding this general pronouncement, however, " [a] landowner may apply a maximum of two acres of a tract of land subject to preferential assessment . . . for a rural enterprise incidental to the operational unit without subjecting the entire tract to roll-back taxes, provided that . . . [t]he rural enterprise does not permanently render the land incapable of producing an agricultural commodity." Section 8(d)(1) of the Act, 72 P.S. § 5490.8(d)(1). The crux of the dispute between the parties is whether Landowner is operating a rural enterprise that exceeds two acres.

The tract of land at issue in this matter is a 109-acre parcel (Property) owned by Landowner as part of her 171-acre farm, which is located in Washington Township, Berks County. Landowner's husband had originally enrolled the Property in the Berks County Act 319 Program in 1993, and, following his death, Landowner re-enrolled the Property in the program in 2005. Since 2003, Landowner has operated a dog training facility (Facility) on the Property, providing obedience training and teaching dogs to behave properly as house pets. Landowner also rents out the Facility for dog shows or trials twelve to fifteen times a year.

The Facility consists of two buildings--a large indoor training facility and a large fabric-covered training facility--as well as an outdoor arena, a paved parking area, and grassy areas for overflow parking. Access to the Facility from the closest public road, named Crow Hill Road, is obtained through a gravel road on the Property named Bella Vista Lane. Bella Vista Lane runs in a westerly direction from Crow Hill Road and passes to the south of the Facility. There are also two gravel roads within the Facility: one on the western portion of the Facility known as the " unused driveway," which runs north from Bella Vista Lane and turns eastward toward the large indoor training facility, and one which runs north from Bella Vista Lane to the paved parking area.

By letter dated December 21, 2012, the Berks County Assessment Office (Assessment Office) informed Landowner that she was in violation of the Act because the land used for the Facility exceeded the maximum two-acre tract of land that may be used for a rural enterprise. (Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 5a.) As a consequence, the Assessment Office terminated the preferential assessment and imposed roll-back taxes. ( Id.) Landowner appealed the Office's notice of violation and, after a hearing, the Board upheld the Office's decision by letter dated January 30, 2013. ( Id. at 6a.) ...


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