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Little Egg Harbor Township v. Bonsangue

November 09, 1998

LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
CHARLES BONSANGUE, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Before Judges Petrella, D'Annunzio and Collester.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Petrella, P.j.a.d.

[9]    Argued October 13, 1998

On appeal from Tax Court of New Jersey, Ocean County.

Charles Bonsangue appeals from the judgment of the Tax Court which increased the Ocean County Board of Taxation's (County Board) valuation of certain real property in the Township of Little Egg Harbor (Township). On appeal, Bonsangue argues that the Tax Court Judge erred (1) in permitting the tax assessor to testify as an expert witness; (2) in using and referring to an appraisal never put into evidence; and, (3) in that there was insufficient evidence to support the Judge's findings and that the Township did not overcome the presumption of validity of the County Board's judgment.

Bonsangue owns two vacant and contiguous *fn1 parcels of property in the Township known as lot 15.02 and lot 15.03 in block 325.200. Both parcels are irregularly shaped. Lot 15.02 consists of 2.12 acres and has a total of 671 feet of frontage on two streets. Lot 15.03 consists of 2.98 acres and has a total of 865 feet of frontage. Both parcels are in the general business zone, which allows a broad variety of commercial uses, and are accessible to public water and sewer. Lot 15.02 is adjacent to a 4,000 square foot strip mall. Lot 15.03 is also adjacent to that strip mall as well as to a 12,000 square foot strip mall.

In 1996, lot 15.02 was assessed by the Township at $296,800 and lot 15.03 was assessed at $298,000.

Bonsangue filed a tax appeal of the 1996 assessment *fn2 with the County Board. After a hearing, the County Board reduced the assessment for lot 15.02 to $70,000 and the assessment for lot 15.03 to $76,000. Thereafter, the Township filed an appeal by way of complaint in the Tax Court, challenging the County Board's reduction of the assessments on Bonsangue's properties.

At the trial in the Tax Court, each party presented only one witness, each represented to be an expert witness. Pursuant to R. 8:6-1(b), both parties submitted appraisals. The Township submitted an appraisal report by Joseph T. Sorrentino, the Township's tax assessor. Bonsangue submitted an appraisal by Paul Johnson. Each expert used the sales comparison valuation approach. However, Sorrentino used the price per front foot as a measure of value, whereas Johnson used the price per acre as a measure of value.

After hearing the testimony of both witnesses, the Tax Court Judge adopted the testimony and valuation methodology of the Township's expert. Even though the Judge eliminated three of the seven comparable properties relied upon by the Township's expert, he considered the remaining four sufficiently reliable to be probative of the true value of the properties. The Judge completely rejected the testimony of Johnson, referring to Johnson's testimony and valuation methodology as "useless" and "not helpful."

Consequently, on May 16, 1997, the Tax Court entered judgment declaring the true value of lot 15.02 was $255,000, and the true value of lot 15.03 was $205,000.

I.

Bonsangue argues that the Township's expert witness, the tax assessor, is barred from giving expert testimony before the Tax Court, because he is neither licensed nor certified pursuant to the Real Estate Appraisers Act, N.J.S.A. 45:14F-21(c). *fn3 After a review of the relevant statute and its legislative intent, we agree with the Tax Court Judge that no such bar exists as applied to the facts of this case.

The qualification and competency of a witness to provide expert testimony are matters within the sound discretion of the trial court. Carey v. Lovett, 132 N.J. 44, 64 (1993); Adamson v. Chiovaro, 308 N.J. Super. 70, 77 (App. Div. 1998); Grand View Gardens v. Borough of Hasbrouck Heights, 14 N.J. Super. 167, 170-171 (App. Div. 1951). An appellate court does not interfere with the exercise of the trial Judge's discretion regarding the admission or exclusion of expert or opinion testimony unless there is a clear abuse of discretion. Carey v. Lovett, (supra) (132 N.J. at 64); Spiegle v. Seaman, 160 N.J. Super. 471, 478 (App. Div. 1978); Grand View Gardens v. Borough of Hasbrouck Heights, (supra) (14 N.J. Super. at 170-171).

The qualifications of a municipal tax assessor *fn4 are specifically regulated by statute. N.J.S.A. 54:1-35.25. In this case, the tax assessor met these qualifications and has served as a certified tax assessor in the Township since 1980. Based on the record, there was no error in the Tax Court Judge accepting the testimony of the tax assessor as an expert in support of the Township's appeal.

II.

Next, the property owner asserts that it was reversible error for the Tax Court Judge to keep and use a copy of the tax assessor's appraisal (captioned as a "Valuation Analysis") *fn5 as trial notes and refer to it during the tax assessor's testimony because the appraisal was not formally introduced into evidence. The "Appraisal Reports" of Johnson, the property owner's appraisal expert, were moved into evidence on the property owner's case. Bonsangue further contends that the use of the ...


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