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Schwartz v. Township of Wayne

A-3756-07T2 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2009) (Unpublished)

TAXATION; ASSESSMENTS — An appellate court should defer to the expertise of the Tax Court in a specialized complex area where the Tax Court’s findings are supported by reasonably credible evidence and, although arbitrary, intentional discrimination in assessing land values is unconstitutional, a taxpayer has a heavy burden of proof to show that such discrimination has taken place.

A municipality assessed a residential lot without giving it an access adjustment. The owner filed a complaint against the municipality in Tax Court, alleging that the municipality had arbitrarily singled his property out for discriminatory tax treatment. There were nine residential lots on the owner’s street. Seven of the lots had access adjustments. The owner’s lot and the other lot without an access adjustment were the two newest homes on the block.

The owner alleged that the municipality was essentially “spot assessing” the newest homes on the street by not giving them access adjustments. It argued that since the residential street was fully paved and each residence had equal access to the road and municipal services, there was no rational basis for the differing access adjustments for the various lots. The Tax Court dismissed the complaint, finding that the owner’s property was located on the public road portion of the residential street, and all lots that received an access adjustment were located on the private road portion of the street. The Tax Court opined that the assessor correctly concluded that a property’s location on the private road warranted some minor adjustment, and the assessor’s determination was entitled to a presumption of validity. The Tax Court deferred to the assessor’s judgment that homes located on the public road were preferable to those located on the private road section by a small amount relating only to the land value. The owner appealed.

The Appellate Division affirmed, deferring to the expertise of the Tax Court in a specialized and complex area, holding that the Tax Court findings were supported by reasonably credible evidence. It held that arbitrary, intentional discrimination in assessing land values is unconstitutional, but concluded that the homeowner did not meet this heavy burden of proof. The Court found that the assessor acted reasonably in granting access adjustments to lots fronting a private road, while assessing the owner’s lot at full true value because it fronted a public road. Further, it criticized the owner for failing to call the tax assessor as a witness to explain why he did not give an access adjustment in favor of the owner’s property. The Court held that municipal tax assessments are presumed to be correct, and the evidence before the Tax Court did not support an inference of discrimination.

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