David A. v. Porter Cnty. Assessor, 21T-TA-00025

Citation21T-TA-00025
Case DateApril 14, 2022
CourtTax Court of Indiana

DAVID A. and NICHELLE L. GERTZ, Petitioners,
v.

PORTER COUNTY ASSESSOR, Respondent.

No. 21T-TA-00025

Tax Court of Indiana

April 14, 2022


ON APPEAL FROM A FINAL DETERMINATION OF THE INDIANA BOARD OF TAX REVIEW

PETITIONERS APPEARING PRO SE:

DAVID A. GERTZ

NICHELLE L. GERTZ

Hebron, IN

ATTORNEYS FOR RESPONDENT:

ROBERT M. SCHWERD

SCHWERD FRYMAN & TORRENGA, LLP

Valparaiso, IN

CRISTIN L. JUST

LAW OFFICE OF CRISTIN JUST

Crown Point, IN

WENTWORTH, J.

David A. and Nichelle L. Gertz challenge the Indiana Board of Tax Review's final determination that required the Porter County Assessor to reclassify 10.094 acres of their land as agricultural land, to reassess the land as tillable land, and to apply the 2% tax cap to the land solely for the 2019 tax year. Upon review, the Court affirms the Indiana Board's final determination.

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FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In July of 2003, the Gertzes purchased a 4, 106 square foot single-family residence in Porter County, Hebron, Indiana. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 52-53, 75.) Their home was situated on just over eleven acres of land. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 75, 52-53.) Thereafter, the Gertzes used part of the land for beekeeping, and they allowed local farmers to cut and bale hay on their land. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 13, 19-24, 77.)

Since their purchase, one acre of the Gertzes' land has been valued as a residential homesite.[1] (See Cert. Admin. R. at 75.) For eight years after their purchase, 10.094 acres were classified and assessed as agricultural land.[2] (See Cert. Admin. R. at 52, 73, 75.) A portion of that agricultural land was further classified and valued as tillable land, [3] and at least five acres were valued as agricultural excess acreage. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 73, 75.) Accordingly, the Gertzes' 2003 through 2011 land assessments ranged from $29, 400 to $43, 000. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 14-16.)

In 2012, after receiving guidance from the Department of Local Government Finance ("DLGF"), the Assessor reclassified and assessed the Gertzes' 10.094 acre tract as residential acreage, not agricultural acreage. (See, e.g., Cert. Admin. R. at 16-17, 25, 73.) The Assessor notified the Gertzes by mailing them a Form 11 that indicated the 2012 assessed value of their land had increased from $43, 000 to $121, 900. (See Cert. Admin.

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R. at 16, 73.) The Gertzes did not appeal the 2012 assessment. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 73.)

After the 2012 reclassification, however, the Gertzes noticed a "substantial increase in [their] annual tax bill." (See Cert. Admin. R. at 75 (providing that their 2013 tax bill was $1, 500 higher than their 2012 tax bill).) Mr. Gertz began to discuss the matter with his neighbors, and when he discovered that their tax bills had not increased like his, he contacted the Assessor's office. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 75-76.) "Unsatisfied with the answer[s]" he received, the Gertzes appealed their 2013, 2017, and 2018 assessments. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 73, 76.) The parties resolved each of those appeals by agreement, reducing the Gertzes' assessments to be consistent with either comparable property data or certain appraisal data. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 73.) (See also Cert. Admin. R. at 16-18 (indicating that the Gertzes' assessments were reduced from $373, 500 to $337, 800 in 2013, from $385, 400 to $367, 000 in 2017, and from $387, 600 to $370, 700 in 2018).)

In 2019, the Assessor assigned the Gertzes' property an assessed value of $422, 600 ($107, 400 for land and $315, 200 for improvements). (See Cert. Admin. R. at 2, 52.) Believing that value to be too high, the Gertzes sought review first with the Assessor and then with the Porter County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals ("PTABOA"). (See Cert. Admin. R. at 3-7.) After conducting a hearing, the PTABOA reduced the Gertzes' 2019 assessment to $387, 600 ($107, 400 for land and $280, 200 for improvements). (See Cert. Admin. R. at 3-5.)

Dissatisfied with this result, the Gertzes filed an appeal with the Indiana Board on July 20, 2020, electing to have their case heard under the Indiana Board's small claims

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procedures. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 1-2.) The Indiana Board held a hearing on the matter on March 4, 2021, during which the Assessor conceded that he bore the burden of proving the assessment was correct because the Gertzes had successfully appealed in 2018, and the 2019 value was higher than the property's final 2018 value.[4] (See Cert. Admin. R. at 69, 71.) To meet his burden, the Assessor presented an appraisal report that estimated the Gertzes' property value was $380, 000 as of January 1, 2019, using the sales comparison approach.[5] (See Cert. Admin. R. at 36-51, 71-72.) In addition, the Assessor explained that the Gertzes' land should not be assessed as agricultural land because they had failed to comply with the county's binding "directives" to produce either (1) a signed statement from the farmer that farmed their land; (2) their USDA farm number; (3) a copy of a cash farm lease; or (4) copies of their tax returns. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 54-58, 72-75.)

In response, the Gertzes claimed that their 10.094 acres should be reclassified and valued as agricultural tillable land rather than as residential acreage. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 76-78.) Mr. Gertz testified that the land had been used for agricultural purposes since he and his wife purchased the property in 2003, because they had "always had local farmers cut and bale [hay on their] non-homestead acreage to be used as cattle feed." (Cert. Admin. R. at 77.) (See also Cert. Admin. R. at 19-21 (photographs depicting

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the cutting and baling activities).) In addition, Mr. Gertz presented photographs of their beekeeping activities to show that he and his wife used part of the land for beekeeping. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 22-24, 77.) Furthermore, Mr. Gertz explained that he was never told that the increases to their land assessments were due to the 2012 reclassification of the land. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 73, 76 (stating that the Assessor told him the increases were due to Indiana's annual trending process[6]).) Mr. Gertz, however, discovered by "extensively investigating" the matter on his own that his large assessment increases actually were due to the 2012 reclassification. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 75-78.)

On June 1, 2021, the Indiana Board issued its final determination. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 60-66.) The Indiana Board determined that the Gertzes' evidence demonstrated that their 10.094 acres should be classified and assessed as agricultural land. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 63 ¶ 9.) The Indiana Board explained that several factors led it to that conclusion, including the Assessor's failure to establish that the county's four "directives" were required by law and the unrebutted testimony of Mr. Gertz that the land was used for agricultural purposes in 2019. (See Cert. Admin. R. at 63-65 ¶¶ 9(h)-(i).) Consequently, the Indiana Board "order[ed] the Assessor to reclassify the [Gertzes'] 10.094 acres of non-homestead land as agricultural land, reassess it as . . . tillable land, and apply the 2% tax cap to it for the 2019 assessment year." (Cert. Admin. R. at 66.)

On June 9, 2021, the Gertzes requested a rehearing. Specifically, they sought to clarify a portion of the Indiana Board's final determination:

The [final determination] only [requires that] a 2019 tax year
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correction [be made] to the erroneous assessments of [the] land classification made to the 10.094 portion of our parcel. The erroneous conversion by [the A]ssessor to the 10.094 acre portion of the parcel was done unannounced to us in 2012. We also received an improper response of "trending" when questioning the [A]ssessor's office for a reason for the substantial tax increase resulting from [his] conversion of our land parcel back in 2012. This was explained in our testimony and was unrebutted by the [Assessor] at our [Indiana Board] hearing on March 4, 2021. We are therefore requesting that the [final determination] also include the tax years of 2012 to the current year . . . so that the proper tax may be recalculated based on the rates for those years set by the DLGF.

(Cert. Admin. R. at 67.) On June 21, 2021, the Indiana Board denied the Gertzes' request for rehearing. (Cert. Admin. R. at 68.)

On June 30, 2021, the Gertzes initiated this original tax appeal. On August 12, 2021, the Gertzes filed a "Motion In Limine to Admit Certain Evidence," specifically the four exhibits they attached to their petition for review. The Court denied the Motion on August 24, 2021, and took the Gertzes' appeal under...

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