Town of Stratford v. Jacobelli

Decision Date18 August 2015
Docket NumberNos. SC 19332,SC 19333.,s. SC 19332
Citation317 Conn. 863,120 A.3d 500
PartiesTOWN OF STRATFORD et al. v. Raphael JACOBELLI et al.
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Alison L. Squiccimarro, with whom was Paul M. Grocki, Stratford, for the appellants (defendant David Faile et al.).

Heather M. Brown–Olsen, with whom, on the brief, was Aleksandr Y. Troyb, Stamford, for the appellants (defendant N.E. Hangar Development, LLC, et al.).

James W. Donohue, with whom, on the brief, was Michael S. Casey, Shelton, for the appellees (plaintiffs).

ROGERS, C.J., and PALMER, ZARELLA, EVELEIGH, McDONALD, ESPINOSA and ROBINSON, Js.

Opinion

EVELEIGH, J.

The issue presented in these appeals is whether certain aircraft hangars1 owned by the defendants2 and located at Sikorsky Memorial Airport (airport), are subject to municipal taxation pursuant to General Statutes § 12–64. The named plaintiff, the town of Stratford,3 brought this action seeking a declaratory judgment that the hangars are taxable as real property pursuant to § 12–64(a) and are not exempt from taxation pursuant to General Statutes § 12–74. The trial court rendered judgment in favor of the plaintiff and the defendants appealed.4 We conclude that the trial court properly applied §§ 12–64 and 12–74 to determine that the hangars are subject to municipal taxation and, therefore, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.5

The trial court's memorandum of decision reveals the following relevant facts and procedural history. “The hangars at the center of this dispute are owned by the defendants and consist of aircraft hangars described by the manufacturer as ‘portable’ T–Hangars ... and [are] located at [the airport in Stratford].” There are “two primary locations [at] the airport where the [hangars] are situated: the south ramp ... and the north [ramp]....”

“The [hangars] located at the south ramp ... are located on land owned by the city of Bridgeport with the land leased to ... N.E. Hangar Development, LLC [N.E. Hangar]. Each [hangar] was purchased and is privately owned by persons or entities populating the south ramp....” The owners of the hangers at the south ramp “are subtenants of N.E. Hangar ... pursuant to written sublease agreements.” The hangars located on the north ramp of the airport “are situated upon parcels of land owned by the city of Bridgeport and leased directly ... pursuant to unwritten month to month leases.”6

“The [owners of the hangars at] the south ramp entered into ... license and sublease agreement[s]. Each licensee paid ‘a one-time license fee for exclusive use of a portion of asphalt paving in which to tie down or provide a [hangar] for storage of general aviation aircraft when not in use. The license fee is paid to [N.E. Hangar].’ In addition, each sub-lessee ‘pays monthly rent to [N.E. Hangar] for the cost of maintenance and upkeep of the surrounding asphalt apron and for administrative expenses for required coordination with the city of Bridgeport Aviation Commission.’ The [hangar] itself may be purchased from any particular supplier and all of the pieces to the [hangar] are erected on site. All [hangars] must be removed at the end of the license term unless sold sooner.... [N]o [hangar] is permanently affixed to the ground and is only located in a particular spot pursuant to [the] license [with N.E. Hangar].” The hangars located at the south ramp “range in size from 998 square feet ... to 1,400 [square feet].”

[T]he north ramp [hangars] come with a trailer hitch ... [and] were previously moved from another location on the airport to the present location.” For the north ramp hangars, there is a “monthly rate schedule reflecting fees associated with the leases.” [T]he city of Bridgeport ... can end [the month-to-month] lease at any time and [the owners of the hangers at the north ramp would] be required to relocate [their hangars] to another parcel on the airport or to another airport entirely.” The north ramp hangars “range in size from 805.59 [square feet] to 1,171.05 [square feet].”

[All of the hangars] are designed for the storage of aircraft, storage of parts and accessories, and protection of aircraft from wind, storm, and sun damage.” Moreover, all of the hangers “are devoted to nonpublic use for the purpose of storage and housing of private aircraft.”

In 2007 and 2008, the plaintiff included the hangars “on the personal property portion of the grand list.” In 2009, “the [hangars] were included on the real property portion of the grand list.” After the hangars were assessed as real property in 2009, several hangar owners brought individual tax appeals against the plaintiff, contesting the classification of the hangars as real property instead of personal property. Those appeals were stayed when, in 2011, the plaintiff brought the present action seeking a declaratory judgment that the hangars are properly classified as real property and not exempt from taxation.

The trial court ruled that the hangars were taxable pursuant to General Statutes § 12–64(a). That statute provides in relevant part: “All the following mentioned property, not exempted, shall be set in the list of the town where it is situated ... [d]welling houses, garages, barns, sheds, stores, shops, mills, ... ice houses, warehouses, silos, [and] all other buildings and structures....” General Statutes § 12–64(a).7 Additionally, the trial court ruled that § 12–74 did not operate to exempt the hangars from taxation,8 and that no other statutory provisions, including § 12–64(b) or (c),9 nor General Statutes § 12–19a,10 exempted the hangars from taxation.

On appeal, the defendants challenge the trial court's conclusions that: (1) the hangars are taxable as real property pursuant to § 12–64(a) and are not exempted by § 12–64(b) or (c) ; (2) § 12–74 does not exempt the hangars from taxation; and (3) § 12–19a does not exempt the hangars from taxation. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

Before considering the merits of the parties' arguments, we set forth the basic legal principles and standard of review applicable to these appeals. “The scope of our appellate review depends upon the proper characterization of the rulings made by the trial court. To the extent that the trial court has made findings of fact, our review is limited to deciding whether such findings were clearly erroneous. When, however, the trial court draws conclusions of law, our review is plenary and we must decide whether its conclusions are legally and logically correct and find support in the facts that appear in the record.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.)

Kasica v. Columbia, 309 Conn. 85, 92–93, 70 A.3d 1 (2013), quoting Union Carbide Corp. v. Danbury, 257 Conn. 865, 870–71, 778 A.2d 204 (2001). “A finding of fact is clearly erroneous when there is no evidence in the record to support it ... or when although there is evidence to support it, the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) McBurney v. Paquin, 302 Conn. 359, 368, 28 A.3d 272 (2011). “In addition, in examining the meaning of a particular statute, we are guided by fundamental principles of statutory construction. See General Statutes § 1–2z ; see also Testa v. Geressy, 286 Conn. 291, 308, 943 A.2d 1075 (2008) ([o]ur fundamental objective is to ascertain and give effect to the apparent intent of the legislature ...).” Goodspeed Airport, LLC v. East Haddam, 302 Conn. 70, 76, 24 A.3d 1205 (2011).

[A]long with these principles, we are also guided by the applicable rules of statutory construction specifically associated with the interpretation of tax statutes.... [W]hen the issue is the imposition of a tax, rather than a claimed right to an exemption or a deduction, the governing authorities must be strictly construed against the commissioner ... and in favor of the taxpayer.... Nevertheless, [i]t is also true ... that such strict construction neither requires nor permits the contravention of the true intent and purpose of the statute as expressed in the language used.” (Citation omitted; internal quotation marks omitted.) Scholastic Book Clubs, Inc. v. Commissioner of Revenue Services, 304 Conn. 204, 214–15, 38 A.3d 1183, cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 425, 184 L.Ed.2d 255 (2012).

I

The proper interpretation of § 12–64 presents a question of statutory construction; we therefore begin by examining the text of § 12–64(a) to determine if the plaintiff may subject the hangars to taxation and, thereafter, discuss whether § 12–64(b) and (c) exempt the hangars from taxation.

A

Section 12–64(a) provides for taxation of real property, including “garages, barns, sheds, stores, shops, mills ... ice houses, warehouses, silos, [and] all other buildings and structures....” General Statutes § 12–64(a). While “hangars” are not explicitly listed in the text of § 12–64(a), they will be taxable if their characteristics, as found by the trial court, place them within the purview of the proper construction of the words “sheds” or “all other buildings” in § 12–64(a).

In interpreting the language of § 12–64(a), we do not write on a clean slate, but are bound by our previous judicial interpretations of the language and the purpose of the statute.” Kasica v. Columbia, supra, 309 Conn. at 93–94, 70 A.3d 1. This court has previously construed the term “building” for purposes of § 12–64(a) by relying on the dictionary definition of “building” as “a constructed edifice designed to stand more or less permanently, covering a space of land, usu[ally] covered by a roof and more or less completely enclosed by walls, and serving as a dwelling, storehouse, factory, shelter for animals, or other useful structure distinguished from structures not designed for occupancy (as fences or monuments) and from structures not intended for use in one place (as boats or trailers) even though subject to occupancy.” (Internal quotation marks omitted.) Eastern Connecticut...

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