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Odessa National Golf Course, LLC v. New Castle County Office of Finance

Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle

March 14, 2014

ODESSA NATIONAL GOLF COURSE LLC, Appellant,
v.
NEW CASTLE COUNTY OFFICE OF FINANCE, Appellee.

Submitted: December 17, 2013

Upon Appeal from the Board of Assessment Review.

Richard A. Forsten, Esquire (argued), and Michael A. DeNote, Esquire, Saul Ewing LLP, Wilmington, Delaware, Attorneys for Appellant.

Julie M. Sebring, Esquire, and Wilson B. Davis, Esquire (argued), New Castle County Office of Law, New Castle, Delaware, Attorneys for Appellees.

OPINION AND ORDER

Paul R. Wallace, Paul R. Wallace, Judge

I. INTRODUCTION

In September 2011, Appellant Odessa National Golf Course LLC ("Odessa National") filed an appeal of the New Castle County Office of Finance's (the "County Finance Office") tax assessment, which valued Odessa National's property at $5.4 million.[1] The New Castle County Board of Assessment Review (the "Board") heard Odessa National's appeal of the County Finance Office's tax assessments, [2] and at that hearing denied the appeal.[3] In its later written decision, the Board purportedly rejected Odessa National's appeal on two grounds: (1) Odessa National had not filed the proper application to qualify for a tax exemption; and (2) Odessa National had not submitted sufficient evidence to demonstrate over-assessment.[4]Following the Board's decision, Odessa National filed this timely appeal.[5]

Because the Court cannot say, on the record presented here, that the Board's decision was based on substantial evidence, or was otherwise the product of an orderly and logical deductive process, the Board of Assessment Review's decision is REVERSED, IN PART, and this matter is REMANDED for proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

After approximately five years of site improvement work on the property, the New Castle County Assessment Division assessed Odessa National's golf course (the "Golf Course") at $5, 392, 100 in June, 2011. The Golf Course is bound by a deed restriction: while operating as a golf course, it must be open to public use; if the Golf Course ceases to exist, the 284 acres that comprises it will revert to "open space in perpetuity."[6] Odessa National's income and expense figures, according to a September 2011 balance sheet, demonstrated that the Golf Course had a net loss of $428, 766.94. Odessa National's owner/agent appealed the supplemental assessment pro se in September 2011, indicating on the appeal form his belief that because of the deed restriction, and because the Golf Course was operating at a net loss, the Golf Course should have a $0 assessed value.

The Board held a hearing on Odessa National's appeal of its supplemental assessment on March 20, 2013. By this time, Odessa National had obtained counsel and discovered the existence of an independent appraisal of the Golf Course performed by a bank in September of 2012, indicating a current market value of $1, 975, 000. This appraisal was sent to the Board in February 2013, prior to the hearing, pursuant to an obligation to provide the Board with copies of any appraisal reports.[7] At the hearing, Odessa National presented two alternative arguments: (1) the supplemental assessment was a substantial over valuation given the bank's appraisal, the Golf Course's net loss, and comparable properties' assessments; and (2) because of the deed restriction, the Golf Course should be tax exempt as public open space under Title 9, Section 8106(b) of the Delaware Code. The Board, however, refused to hear certain probative evidence relating to the first argument, stating, for instance, that the bank's appraisal was not timely submitted.[8] And having considered Odessa National's appeal to be merely an application for exemption, having stated that Odessa National had failed to file the proper application for tax exempt status, and having found that the exemption issue was not before it, the Board denied Odessa National's appeal.[9] This timely appeal followed.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Upon appeal to this Court, a Board of Assessment Review's decision "shall be prima facie correct, " and the burden rests with the appellant to show the Board acted "contrary to law, fraudulently, arbitrarily or capriciously."[10] Reversal is warranted where "the Board's findings are clearly wrong and its conclusions [are] not the product of an orderly and logical deductive process."[11] The Court's role in assessing the merit of any appeal from the Board has been described as follows:

The Court must consider first whether the Board's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. Then the Court must decide if the Board applied the facts as it found them to be, according to the law as the Court finds it to be. While the Court may not ...

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