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CorneliusNews.net: Property Owners Give Consutants An Earful On Revaluation

Johnny Bustle

Johnny Bustle of Green Dolphin Lane Cornelius said he lost an appeal on his "tear down" ranch house. He thinks many of the homes in his neighborhood were overvalued. (David Boraks/CorneliusNews.net) Why were so many varied lots around Lake Norman all valued identically at $700,000 in last year's Mecklenburg County property revaluation? Why did the assessor's office reject private appraisals from so many homeowners appealing their new valuations? And what did county officials mean when they told some homeowners they wouldn't revise land values because "it would open up a can of worms"? Those were among the questions delivered Tuesday night to consultants beginning an independent review of the 2011 revaluation of residential and commercial property in Mecklenburg County. More than 150 people packed Cornelius Town Hall meeting room for the session with representatives from Pearson's Appraisal Service Inc. of Richmond, Va. It was the second in a planned series of meetings around the county, and was considerably larger than the first meeting Monday night in Matthews. Over on DavidsonNews.net: Is county assessor ignoring Davidson affordable housing rules? One woman held a sign of protest as the meeting began. (David Boraks/CorneliusNews.net) In May, the Mecklenburg County Commission hired Pearson's to conduct an independent review of the revaluation process. That came after pressure from citizen-led community groups and Cornelius leaders who have accused the county assessor's office of violating state statutes and making errors during the 2011 revaluation. More than 40 people from Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville and Charlotte gave three-minute speeches Tuesday night before an audience that occasionally cheered and applauded. One woman held a bright orange sign with black letters asking "511% INCREASE FAIR?" Many speakers focused on the county's appraisal of land values, either for vacant lots or lots with houses. As they spoke, they began referring to themselves as "the 700 club," referring to the dollar figure that many were given for their lots. They complained that county appraisers seemed to assign a $700,000 value to waterfront lots regardless of their size, location, view, amount under water or other factors. At one point, Don Hall of Norman Shores Drive in Cornelius, turned to the crowd and asked: "How many are primarily concerned with land values?" Most people in the room raised their hands. He looked at the consultants and said, "It's a waste of time to go around measuring buildings." After outlining his own case and that of similar lots, he added, "I think the point we're trying to make here tonight is that the county assessment of land values is ridiculous." Charles Bustle of Charlotte, who owns a lot on Lake Norman that was once part of his grandfather's farm, put a finer point on it: "How many are part of the 700,000 dollar club?" he asked. Lots of hands shot up. Mr. Bustle's lot was appraised in 2003 for $258,400, then in 2011 at $703,400. "It's nothing but a piece of dirt that I have to cut the grass on," Mr. Bustle said. He complained that a similar parcel two lots away from his sold for just $335,900 in 2010, as the county was in the midst of the revaluation. And he wondered aloud how the county arrived at a valuation more than double that. In an introduction earlier in the meeting, Emmett Curl of Pearson's Appraisal reviewed the rules for the appraisal as he asked property owners to recount their experiences. He said the revaluation was supposed to be based on an estimate of the fair-market value, which he described as "money at which the property would change hands between a willing and financially able buyer and a willing seller." Mr. Bustle thinks the county's valuation of his lot is nowhere near fair market value. He told of how an airline pilot had called him recently inquiring about buying the lot. "I told him the tax value, and he said no way," Mr. Bustle said, pounding the podium. Then, Mr. Bustle turned to the audience and said, "I'll sell it to any of you tonight for $703,000," drawing a chorus of laughs. Bob Deaton, who was among a group of Cornelius residents calling for a review of the 2011 revaluation, said based on his research many land values seemed to be arbitrary. He said some partial lots of 1/4 acre or less were valued at $700,000 as well as much larger lots. "How can that be?" he asked. "How can contiguous properties have dramatically different assessed values," he said, citing several examples. He said he found multi-acre parcels in neighborhoods valued at less than $500,000 while smaller 1-acre parcels were valued at $700,000 or more. Jerry Wyatt, of Mollypop Lane off Belle Isle Drive on Lake Norman, said he sees a pattern in the $700,000 figure assigned to so many lots. "The county revaluation valued our lot at 700,000 dollars. This is the exact same value as many of the waterfront lots in our area. It is extremely doubtful all lots could be value the same, as each lot is unique in its attributes," Mr. Wyatt said. He said 2010 sales of comparable lots, some with better views than his, were for significantly less than $700,000. "I am of the mind that our experience in this process is not unusual, but widespread," Mr. Wyatt said. Mr. Deaton also sounded another complaint heard from many speakers Tuesday night: About a confusing and unfair appeals process. He said the Board of Equalization and Review and assessor's office have rejected appeals from homeowners who brought in private appraisals in hopes of making their case for lower valuations. Delbert Arrendale showed a map of waterfront lots at the Peninsula that he said were misvalued. (David Boraks/CorneliusNews.net) "Why are professionally prepared appraisals not accepted? What else is available to a property owner to refute the assessor's appraisal?" he asked. Delbert Arrendale, whose waterfront house in the Peninsula area increased from around $1 million in value to $1.6 million, agreed. "They reached into my back pocket and took $4,700 dollars this year," he said. "I have no recourse. They're not accepting any of the information they say we're supposed to be able to use." He then turned to Mr. Curl and asked, "Who do you work for?" Mr. Curl replied that the firm has been hired by the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Mr. Arrendale shot back: "You work for me." He and several others at the meeting said they hope the firm will help fix what they believe is wrong with the county appraisal system. (Some critics have suggested the assessor's office was understaffed during the 2010-11 revaluation process and didn't have enough appraisers certified in a technique called "mass appraisal." Since the complaints began surfacing, county revaluation manager Chuck Hicks has retired. He was replaced in June by Kimberly Horton, a veteran tax administrator and appraiser.) Bob Bruton of Cornelius said he attended a Board of Equalization and Review meeting where a homeowner presented a private appraisal that was $200,000 below the county's assessment. He said one member asked the staff, "What would happen if we made an adjustment?" and lowered the county appraisal. "It would open a can of worms," the staff member said. Tuesday's meeting also brought out concerns about commercial property revaluations. Mike Kothadia, who owns the Days Inn, off Exit 28 in Cornelius, said the hotel was valued at $2.5 million in 2003, the last county revaluation. That rose to a whopping $10 million in 2011, he said, inspiring a collective gasp from the gathering. On appeal, the Board of Equalization and Review lowered the value to $5.6 million, then later changed it again, to $8 million. Mr. Kothadia said he's confused about how the county arrived at the various figures. Commercial properties are valued in part on projected income from businesses there, officials said. Mr. Kothadia said during his appeal before the board, one member said, "We guesstimated." When the board member suggested that his business should be earning $2 million, he laughed, and said it was $600,000. Former Cornelius Commissioner Jim Bensman, who helped lead the fight for the review, spoke late in the meeting, appealing for the consultants to look at how the county has treated "elderly and infirm, who have not been able to deal with this issue." Mr. Bensman said most don't have computers, though "95 percent of the documentation available to homeowners is available through the web." He said county officials have told him they had no process to deal with the elderly. He also urged the consultants to take advantage of the expertise of citizens who have been studying the revaluation for more than a year. He said those citizens "know as much as the county assessor's office, if not more, and they're being specifically excluded." In his introduction Tuesday night, Mr. Curl of Pearson's Appraisal thanked residents for attending and said their role was to help point the consultants to the "needle in the haystack." At around 10 p.m., as the meeting stretched toward three hours, former Cornelius Mayor Pro-Tem Susan Medlin suggested Mr. Curl had it backwards. "You do not need to look for a needle in a haystack," she said. "Here tonight we have a whole silo full of needles." WHAT'S NEXT? After this summer's public meetings, Pearson's Appraisal will review the revaluation data from a random sampling of 200 Mecklenburg County neighborhoods. They'll also look at neighborhoods where property values changed sharply, up or down. They'll bring the data to the county commission this fall, and present it in another series of public meetings, Mr. Curl said Tuesday. MORE MEETINGS Pearson's is conducting additional meetings this month around Charlotte: Thursday, Aug. 2, 7-9 p.m., Beatties Ford Library, 2412 Beatties Ford Rd. (Large conference room) Monday, Aug. 6, 7-9 p.m., Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center (Rm. 267) Thursday, Aug. 9, 7-9 p.m., First Baptist Church West, 1801 Oaklawn Ave. (Activity room) Click here to read Pearson's response to the county's RFP. More than 150 people attended Tuesday's meeting at Cornelius Town Hall. (David Boraks/CorneliusNews.net)