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Fasnacht v. Board of Property Assessment Appeals of Schuylkill County

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

March 9, 2017

Cole Fasnacht and Courtney Fasnacht, his wife, Appellants
v.
Board of Property Assessment Appeals of Schuylkill County
v.
Schuylkill County, South Manheim Township, and Schuylkill Haven Area School District

          Submitted: October 21, 2016

          BEFORE: HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge HONORABLE MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge[1]HONORABLE ROCHELLE S. FRIEDMAN, Senior Judge[2]

          OPINION

          MICHAEL H. WOJCIK, Judge.

         Cole Fasnacht and Courtney Fasnacht, his wife, (together, Taxpayers) appeal from the February 9, 2016 order of the Court of Common Pleas of Schuylkill County (trial court) that denied and dismissed their tax assessment appeal. We affirm.

         Taxpayers purchased property (Property) at 348 Bernie Drive in Schuylkill County, Tax Identification No. 28-2-28.1, on November 6, 2013, for $175, 000. On June 5, 2015, the County Tax Assessment Office (County) notified Taxpayers of a change in the Property's assessment from $33, 540 to $66, 120. Taxpayers appealed the assessment change to the County Board of Assessment Appeals, which denied their request to change the assessment. Thereafter, Taxpayers appealed to the trial court, contending that the change of assessed value was an impermissible spot reassessment.[3]

         At a hearing before the trial court on December 9, 2015, the County introduced its assessment card for the Property, which showed a fair market value of $132, 244 and an assessed value of $66, 120. The County also introduced the testimony of field appraiser Debra Detweiler, a Certified Pennsylvania Evaluator licensed to perform field appraisals. Detweiler testified that she has been a field appraiser for the County since 2003 and is assigned to thirteen or fourteen different municipalities in the County. She explained that, as a field appraiser, she receives building permits from various municipalities, and she is responsible to check on properties and adjust assessments for those properties with new construction or improvements. She added that the law does address the number of visits an assessor must make each year but said that, as a general rule, County field appraisers go to their designated areas twice a year; they check on permits that have been issued and drive the districts looking for other construction. Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 4a-6a, 11a, 22a, 37a-38a.

         Detweiler testified that she received a building permit for a patio enclosure issued for the Property on November 23, 2010. She stated that she visited the Property on January 5, 2011, and observed that construction had begun. She said that she visited the Property several times after January 2011, including occasions after the date of Taxpayers' purchase of the Property in November 2013. She stated that while she monitored the progress of work on the patio enclosure, she also observed construction that was not included on the permit. More specifically, Detweiler testified that the changes she observed at the Property included an addition to the rear of the home, increasing the living area of the second floor; a two-story attached garage with living area above that as well; and an above-ground pool or hot tub, which held no value for assessment purposes but was also something new. She also introduced photographs taken in August 1995 and September 2015 reflecting those changes. Detweiler acknowledged that she did not document every visit to the Property, but she said that her file notes reflect that the two-car garage with living area above was still under construction on May 9, 2014. R.R. at 9a-16a, 24a-26a.

         On April 20, 2015, Detweiler determined that the construction was complete and issued a Change of Assessment notice. She explained that it is the practice of the County that a revised assessment based on an improvement is not done until the construction is finished. She said that on her earlier visits, she had observed lumber stacked up outside and/or people working on the home, whereas on that date she saw no activity and noticed that there were curtains in the living area above the garage. Detweiler testified that, relying on her expertise and experience, she concluded that the improvements on the Property were completed. She stated that the Property's assessment was revised based on information obtained in the field and entered into "our governed system downstairs, " adding that the calculation of the new assessed value from $33, 540 to $66, 120 was not a new appraisal, but was "predetermined in our system from the 1995 reassessment." R.R. at 16a-19a.

         On cross-examination, Detweiler acknowledged that she could not be certain of the exact date that the work was finished. She testified that she never saw contractors at the Property because the former owners were doing the construction themselves beginning in January 2011. She also said that she was not aware that the ownership of the Property had changed, and she was using a working file that showed Vernon and Marianne Blankenhorn, and not Taxpayers, as the owners. She stated that on April 20, 2015, she noticed that the entire outside of the Property had been cleaned up and there was no sign of ongoing construction.

         Finally, Detweiler testified that, other than the 30-month exemption for interim assessments for new construction, Section 8813 of the Consolidated County Assessment Law (Law), 53 Pa.C.S. §8813, the Law does not specify time limits for revising assessments based on construction. However, Detweiler repeated that the County's practice is to change an assessment when the County determines that construction is completed and that in this case, she initiated the change as soon as she made that determination. R.R. at 33a, 38a.

         Cole Fasnacht testified that the previous owners of the Property obtained the building permit and performed the renovations and that he did not perform any construction on the Property after his purchase in November 2013. Asked about the materials Detweiler observed in 2014, Fasnacht said that he had no idea what she saw, but that he was landscaping. He said that he also re-stoned the driveway, but he was told he did not need a permit for that. He stated that no other changes were made to the Property subsequent to Taxpayers' purchase, including installation of the hot tub. R.R. at 46a-54a.

         The trial court noted that under Section 8817(a) of the Law, 53 Pa.C.S. §8817(a), changes to assessments resulting from improvements or new construction shall not be construed to be illegal spot assessments. The trial court further observed that there is no requirement for a property owner to inform the assessment office that improvements to the property are complete. The trial court determined that Detweiler's credible testimony established that: she was aware of ongoing construction at the Property; she monitored the construction on numerous occasions; and she initiated a change to the assessment at the time she reasonably determined, based on her experience and expertise as a field appraiser, that construction was finally completed.[4] In light of these facts, the trial court concluded that the reassessment was not made at an arbitrary time in the future and was not an impermissible spot reassessment. Accordingly, the trial court denied Taxpayers' appeal.

         On appeal to this Court, [5] Taxpayers argue that the Property's reassessment due to improvements made before they purchased the Property ...


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