July 16, 2008
FREDERICK G. BELLOTTIE AND DONNA BELLOTTIE, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
BOROUGH OF BERGENFIELD, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Tax Court of New Jersey, Docket No. 8251-2006.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted April 9, 2008
Before Judges Cuff and Simonelli.
Defendant Borough of Bergenfield (Borough) appeals from the February 9, 2007 judgment reducing the assessment of property owned by plaintiffs Frederick G. Bellottie and Donna Bellottie, located at 55 Maiden Lane (the property).
The Bergen County Board of Taxation (Board) originally assessed the property at $355,400 ($246,400 for the land and $109,000 for the improvements). Plaintiffs filed an appeal with the Board. They conceded that the value assigned to the land was correct. However, they raised a Chapter 123 assessment discrimination claim, arguing that the assessments of eighty percent of the rest of the homes in Bergenfield were flawed because they were under-assessed, resulting in a higher tax burden on their property. The Board affirmed the assessment.
Plaintiffs then filed an appeal with the Tax Court, requesting that the property be assessed comparable to other assessments at approximately $255,400. They contended that the property was within the Chapter 123 range, and relied upon comparable sales of homes that sold above their assessed value. However, they did not present any expert evidence, statistical analysis or appraisal reports supporting their contention.
The tax court judge applied the ratio of 89.47%, finding that on the assessment date, the property was worth approximately its assessed value. The judge then reduced the assessment to $317,600 ($246,400 for the land and $71,200 for the improvements), based upon plaintiffs' Chapter 123 discrimination assessment claim.
The Borough contends that the judge erred in finding that plaintiffs established a prima facie case to overcome the presumption of correctness of the assessment, and in reducing the original assessment based upon the Chapter 123 discrimination assessment claim. We agree.
We recognize that "'[t]he judges presiding in the Tax Court have special expertise; for that reason their findings will not be disturbed unless they are plainly arbitrary or there is a lack of substantial evidence to support them.'" First Republic Corp. of Am. v. Borough of E. Newark, 17 N.J. Tax 531, 536 (App. Div. 1998) (quoting Glenpointe Assocs. v. Twp. of Teaneck, 241 N.J. Super. 37, 46 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 122 N.J. 391 (1990)); Pine St. Mgmt. Corp. v. City of E. Orange, 15 N.J. Tax 681, 686 (App. Div. 1995) (quoting G & S Co. v. Borough of Eatontown, 6 N.J. Tax 218, 220 (Tax 1982)), certif. denied, 144 N.J. 172 (1996). "Our scope of review in a case such as this 'is limited to determining whether the findings of fact are supported by substantial credible evidence with due regard to the Tax Court's expertise and ability to judge credibility.'" First Republic, supra, 17 N.J. Tax at 536-37 (quoting Phillips v. Twp. of Hamilton, 15 N.J. Tax 222, 226 (App. Div. 1995)); Romulus Dev. Corp. v. Twp. of Weehawken, 15 N.J. Tax 209, 211 (App. Div. 1995) (quoting Glenpointe Assocs., supra, 241 N.J. Super. at 46). It is with these standards in mind we review the judge's findings.
In a reevaluation year, there is a presumption that the Chapter 123 ratio reflects the common level. Bellemead Dev. Corp. v. Borough of Roseland, 17 N.J. Tax 155, 161-62 (Tax 1998). To overcome the presumption that all properties were assessed at 100% of true value in a reevaluation year, the taxpayer must provide a sales study that the assessments for the reevaluation year, including the assessment on the taxpayer's property, were not uniformly made at true value. Also, the taxpayer must prove that the real property within the municipality was assessed at less than true value, and that the assessment on the taxpayer's property, when compared to its true value, is at a substantially higher percentage than the common level percentage of the true value of all reevaluated property within the municipality. Cont'l Paper Co. v. Vill. of Ridgefield Park, 122 N.J. Super. 446 (App. Div.) (citing Reading Co. v. Twp. of Woodbridge, 45 N.J. 407, 426 (1965)), certif. denied, 63 N.J. 328 (1973).
Here, plaintiffs provided no sales study, appraisal report or expert testimony, but merely relied upon a spreadsheet of 425 homes that sold between January 1, 2005 through April 2006, showing that homes outside their area sold for substantially higher than their assessed values, and homes within their area sold for much closer to their assessed value. They also relied on hearsay evidence. Thus, the judge's findings lack substantial, credible evidence to support them.
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