2015 Court Decisions and AG Opinions
Listed below are 2015 decisions and opinions concerning various property tax issues. The list does not include all opinions and decisions concerning property tax. The summaries are provided by the Comptroller's office as a public service intended solely as an informational resource. The summaries are not intended as substitutes for or interpretations of the opinions and decisions summarized and should not be relied upon as such. The information provided neither constitutes nor serves as a substitute for legal advice. Questions regarding the meaning or interpretation of any information included or referenced herein should, as appropriate or necessary, be directed to an attorney or other appropriate counsel.
Texas Supreme Court Decisions
The Texas Supreme Court framed this property-tax dispute as follows:
Whether a dormitory-like facility owned by a "higher education facility authority"forfeits its statutory property-tax exemption by providing summer housing to non-college students attending university-sponsored instructional programs.
The Court wrote that "[both the title and text"of Section 53.46 of the Education Code - titled "Authority Exempt From Taxation"-"declare rather emphatically that the authority is exempt from taxation." And because "the language seems focused on who the property owner is, not on how the property is used,"the statute "seems to state in absolute terms that the property is, in all events, exempt." In holding that the authority’s facility was exempt from taxation under Section 53.46 of the Education Code, the Court explicitly did not reach the authority’s "alternative argument that the property is also tax-exempt under [Section 11.11 of] the Tax Code.”
Courts of Appeals Decisions
NHH-Canal Street Apartments, Inc. v. Harris County Appraisal District and Harris County Appraisal District Appraisal Review Board, No. 14-14-00251-CV (Fourteenth Court of Appeals – Houston)
(November 19, 2015)
NHH-Canal Street Apartments sued the appraisal district for denial of its tax exemption as a charity. Tax Code Section 11.18(d)(2) provides that a charitable organization is entitled to a tax exemption if it provides support to “. . . the impoverished, or victims of natural disaster without regard to the beneficiaries’ ability to pay.” NHH-Canal Street Apartments is a single room occupancy facility housing low-income individuals, most of whom also are homeless, disabled, or have special needs. The appraisal district denied the tax exemption because the apartment’s tenants are screened to ensure that each resident has income which is at least 1.5 times the rental amounts charged by NHH-Canal Street, an amount of income that is below the federal poverty guidelines. The court of appeals held that ”the ‘ultimate consideration’ should turn on the totality of the services NHH-Canal Street provided at or below cost, or in the case of programs and services, at no cost.” As a result, “based on an evaluation of the total operation and whether the charitable organization demonstrated that beneficiaries were not required to the pay the full cost of services received,” the court rendered judgment that NHH-Canal was entitled to the tax exemption. The court also held, as a matter of statutory interpretation, that the phrase in Tax Code Section 11.18(d)(2) “without regard to beneficiaries’ ability to pay” modifies only “victims of natural disaster” and not the word “impoverished”.
Stiefer v. Moers, No. 14-14-00617-CV (Fourteenth Court of Appeals – Houston)
(November 10, 2015)
The Moers sued the county chief appraiser for denial of their application for appraisal of their land at special, lower values available only to “open space” agricultural land. The Moers asserted “claims of constitutional violations, denial of due process, request for declaratory relief, and injunctive relief based on ultra vires” against the chief appraiser in addition to claims relating to judicial review of their property valuation. The chief appraiser filed a plea to the jurisdiction asserting immunity to all of the Moers’ claims. Although the trial court granted the plea on the claims relating to judicial review of the valuation, it denied the plea for the remainder of the claims. The chief appraiser appealed this denial. The court of appeals agreed with the chief appraiser and rendered judgment, dismissing for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction all of the Moers’ claims against the chief appraiser.
In this case, the First Court of Appeals in Houston upheld the chief appraiser’s denial of the property owners’ requests for an open-space land appraisal for property used in an organic sheep-raising operation which did not meet the degree of intensity standards necessary to qualify for open-space land appraisal. In holding that the standards adopted by the chief appraiser were valid, the Court explained the legal basis for open-space appraisal and the “important roles in the open-space appraisal process” chief appraisers and the comptroller play:
The Texas Constitution and the Texas Tax Code contain provisions to promote the preservation of open-space land devoted to farm or ranch purposes. See TEX. CONST. art. VIII, § 1–d–1; TEX. TAX CODE ANN. §§ 23.51–.54 (West 2015). Accordingly, the Legislature provided for special appraisals for “qualified open-space land.” TEX. TAX CODE ANN. § 23.52 (West 2015). “The open-space land appraisal allows property used for farm or ranch purposes to be valued based upon the property’s productive capacity rather than its market value.” Parker Cnty. Appraisal Dist. v. Francis, 436 S.W.3d 845, 849 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2014, no pet.) (citing HL Farm Corp. v. Self, 877 S.W.2d 288, 292 (Tex. 1994)).
To qualify for the open-space land appraisal, the property owner must demonstrate that the land (1) is currently being devoted principally to agricultural use (2) to the degree of intensity generally accepted in the area, and (3) has been devoted principally to agricultural use or to production of timber or forests for five of the preceding seven years. TEX. TAX CODE ANN. § 23.51(1).
Chief Appraisers have been given the authority to determine applications for open-space land appraisal. See TEX. TAX CODE ANN. § 23.57(a), (c) (West 2015). However the authority to establish the eligibility standards was delegated by the Legislature to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts:
- The comptroller by rule shall develop and distribute to each appraisal office appraisal manuals setting forth this method of appraising qualified open-space land, and each appraisal office shall use the appraisal manuals in appraising qualified open-space land. The comptroller by rule shall develop and the appraisal office shall enforce procedures to verify that land meets the conditions contained in Subdivision (1) of Section 23.51 of this code . . . .
TEX. TAX CODE ANN. § 23.52(d). Considering these statutes together, both the Chief Appraisers and the Comptroller play important roles in the open-space land appraisal process.
The appellate court went on to discuss the Comptroller’s Manual for the Appraisal of Agricultural Land which is contained in the Guidelines for the Appraisal of Agricultural Land (April 1990), and may be found on the Comptroller’s website.
The Court found that the Manual – which equates to agency rules – “mandates” the following:
- that the Chief Appraiser determines “land use and degree of intensity Standards for qualifying land” and “set Standards according to local agricultural practices” (manual at p. 3, 9);
- that the Chief Appraiser’s “decision on what constitutes an ‘area’ will define ‘typical” agricultural intensity” (manual at p. 9); and
- that a Chief Appraiser’s determination of the typical area for a particular agricultural practice is not confined to a county’s typical agricultural intensity (manual at p. 9).
The appellate court noted, as “a preliminary matter,” that the chief appraiser “has the authority to create the degree of intensity Standards.” The Court concluded that “[u]nder the degree of intensity Standards adopted by the Harris County Chief Appraiser, a livestock operation raising sheep on improved pasture in Harris County must include seven acres and produce sufficient forage to support four animal units – approximately 24 sheep.” As there was no evidence to show the landowners ever had the requisite 24 sheep on their land, the trial court properly granted the appraisal district’s motion for summary judgment; the appraisal district had “conclusively proved” that the property owners could not meet the “degree of intensity” necessary to qualify for open-space land appraisal.
EXLP Leasing, LLC, et al., v. Webb County Appraisal District and United Independent School District, No. 04-14-00343-CV (Fourth Court of Appeals – San Antonio), No. 01-13-00869 (First Court of Appeals – Houston)
(June 3, 2015)
Owner of field compressors for use by oil and gas operators in the extraction of oil and natural gas filed suit challenging the propriety of taxing its property in one county when owner contended the property was only taxable in a different county. The trial court dismissed owner’s suit holding that owner failed to comply with the payment requirements of TEX. TAX CODE § 42.08 (the “Statute”) and thus the trial court did not have jurisdiction. The Statute requires that to maintain an ad valorem tax appeal under Chapter 42, an owner must pay the lesser of “(1) the amount of taxes due on the portion of the taxable value of the property that is not in dispute; (2) the amount of taxes due on the property under the order from which appeal is taken; or (3) the amount of taxes imposed on the property in the preceding tax year.” It was undisputed that owner made no payment whatsoever as to the defendant county.
The court held that because owner contended the property was not taxable at all as to defendant county that the amount of taxes not in dispute was in fact zero and thus owner complied with subsection (1) of the Statute.
On the appraisal district’s motion for rehearing, the First Court in Houston reconsidered the two issues the tax payer had raised in this ad valorem property tax case:
- whether "a newly enacted Tax Code provision [section 42.21(h)] permits Town & County [the property owner] to amend the pleadings appealing an appraisal determination to correct a misidentification of the property owner"and alternatively,
- whether the naming error in this case should be considered misnomer instead of misidentification."
In answering "yes"to the tax payer’s first issue, the court wrote:
Based on the text of section 42.21(h), other relevant Tax Code amendments, and the implications of the various asserted interpretations when reading these provisions as a whole, we conclude that 42.21(h) is not limited to cases of misnomer and can be relied on by property owners in cases of misidentification.
In summarizing its position, the court wrote:
Thus, we conclude that the newly enacted subsection 42.21(h) grants a trial court subject matter jurisdiction over a suit appealing a Board decision as long as the suit meets the property identification and filing requirements contained in section 42.21(h), even if the petition misidentifies the property owner and must be corrected through amendment.
In so doing, the appellate court denied the appraisal district’s motion for rehearing, withdrew its July 1, 2014 opinion in the case, and issued a new opinion and accompanying judgment in their stead. The First Court again reversed the trial court’s granting of the appraisal district’s plea to the jurisdiction and remanded the case for further proceedings between Town & Country and the appraisal district.
The Texarkana Court of Appeals held that when the property owner failed "to file allocation information at the time of rendition"of its aircraft to the appraisal district, it "forfeited the right to interstate allocation.” In so doing, the appellate court reversed both the trial court’s allocation of $144,262.30 as the taxable value of the $1.1 million aircraft as well as the award of attorney’s fees to the property owner.
The Tyler Court of Appeals wrote that the "issues presented on appeal"in this ad valorem tax case, involving natural gas compressor packages and coolers used to facilitate the production and processing of natural gas, concern the following:
- the constitutionality of tax code Section 23.1241 [Dealer’s Heavy Equipment Inventory; Value] and Section 23.1242 [Payment of Taxes by Heavy Equipment Dealers];
- the taxable situs of the compressor and cooler equipment; and
- "whether the equipment at issue meets the statutory definition required to make Sections 23.1241 and 23.1242 applicable”.
In finding that the property owner "provided no evidence explaining how its equipment functions,"the Court concluded that "Valerus did not meet its burden to prove as a matter of law that its equipment meets Section 23.1241(a)(6)’s definition of heavy equipment."As a result, the constitutionality of Sections 23.1241 and 23.1242 was not reached by the Court.
With respect to situs for the compressor packages and coolers, the Court held that Chapter 21 of the tax code, titled "Taxable Situs,"particularly Section 21.02(a)(1), controls the determination of situs for this equipment. In so doing, the Court concluded that "because all of the equipment at issue was in Gregg County on January 1, 2012, and has been in Gregg County for more than a temporary period, the evidence shows, as a matter of law, that the 2012 taxable situs for the equipment at issue is Gregg County.” The Court rejected Valerus’s argument that tax code Section 23.1241, together with Comptroller Form 50-265 [Dealer’s Heavy Equipment Inventory Declaration form], indicate that situs is in Harris County, the property owner’s principal place of business.
Opinion No. KP-0028
(July 13, 2015)
Re: Whether a Type C municipality may levy an ad valorem property tax (RQ-0006-KP)
The Attorney General set forth the following conclusion in his summary:
Section 302.001 of the Tax Code and section 51.051 of the Local Government Code expressly authorize a Type C general-law municipality to levy an ad valorem tax on property within its city limits.
Attorney General Opinions
Opinion No. KP-0026
(July 13, 2015)
Re: Question relating to the Galveston City Charter and a tax increment reinvestment zone governed by chapter 311 of the Tax Code (RQ-0004-KP)
The Attorney General set forth the following conclusion in his summary:
The question whether the City of Galveston's Charter applies to a board of a tax increment reinvestment zone created by the City under chapter 311 of the Tax Code is outside the purview of an attorney general opinion.
As a general matter, however, a charter provision allowing only city residents to serve on a tax increment reinvestment zone board is inconsistent with Tax Code subsection 311.009(e) and is likely void. Similarly, a charter provision limiting the number of terms a tax increment reinvestment zone board member may serve where subsection 311.009(c) would permit the board member to serve an unlimited number of terms likely renders such a charter provision void.
Opinion No. KP-0004
(February 26, 2015)
Re: The authority of a county to form and operate transportation reinvestment zones, tax increment reinvestment zones, or county energy transportation reinvestment zones in various circumstances (RQ-1215-GA)
The Attorney General set forth the following conclusion in his summary:
Absent a constitutional amendment, it is likely a court would conclude that a county may not form and operate a county energy transportation reinvestment zone, a tax increment reinvestment zone, or a transportation reinvestment zone, to the extent that doing so utilizes a captured increment of ad valorem taxes to fund a county-created tax increment reinvestment zone.
Opinion No. KP-0001
(January 20, 2015)
Re: Whether an independent school district may use the certified estimate of property tax values to adopt a tax rate after adopting its budget (RQ-1211-GA)
The Attorney General set forth the following conclusion in its summary:
Subsections 44.004(j) of the Education Code and 26.05(g) of the Tax Code do not authorize an independent school district to use the certified estimate of property tax values to adopt a tax rate after adopting its budget.