This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
George J. Reiling,
City of Lino Lakes, et al.,
Filed April 11, 2000
Anoka County District Court
File No. C0-96-13941
Larry B. Stevens, Larry B. Stevens & Associates, 2233 Hamline Ave. N., Suite 412, Roseville, MN 55113 (for respondent)
Barry A. Sullivan, William G. Hawkins and Associates, 2140 Fourth Ave. N., Anoka, MN 55303 (for appellants)
Considered and decided by Crippen, Presiding Judge, Klaphake, Judge, and Shumaker, Judge.
This appeal is from a judgment vacating a property tax assessment of $397,844.05 and ordering reassessment not to exceed $180,000. Appellant City of Lino Lakes (the city) levied the assessment against undeveloped property located in the city and owned by respondent George Reiling. The assessment was for a road construction project that realigned and upgraded the intersection of Hodgson Road and Lake Drive.
On appeal, the city challenges the evidence supporting the trial court’s findings that (1) Reiling could have obtained access to Lake Drive before the improvement, a fact which the court considered in its special benefits analysis for purposes of valuing the property, and (2) an access easement acquired by Reiling during trial but after the improvement should be excluded from the court’s special benefits analysis. Reiling filed a notice of review and claims that the trial court erred in (1) excluding the existence of a right-of-way easement obtained by the city during trial in the court’s valuation of the property before the improvements; (2) determining that other properties affected by the improvements received no benefit as a result of the improvements; and (3) splitting between the parties the costs of an appraiser’s fee and special master’s fee. Because we conclude the record fairly supports the determinations made by the trial court, we affirm.
Benefit Analysis, Including Valuation of Easements
Under Minn. Stat. § 429.051 (1998), a city may assess the cost of any improvement on property benefited by the improvement based on the benefit received. The city is limited in its power to levy such a special assessment, however, as follows:
(a) The land must receive a special benefit from the improvement being constructed, (b) the assessment must be uniform upon the same class of property, and (c) the assessment may not exceed the special benefit.
Carlson-Lang Realty Co. v. City of Windom, 307 Minn. 368, 369, 240 N.W.2d 517, 519 (1976) (citations omitted). “To determine the value of a special benefit, the taxing authority must consider what increase, if any, there has been in the fair market value of the benefited land.” Schumacher v. City of Excelsior, 427 N.W.2d 235, 236-37 (Minn. 1988) (citing Carlson-Lang, 307 Minn. at 369, 240 N.W.2d at 519). Any increase in market value is measured by the difference between the price a buyer would pay for the property before and after the improvement “under ordinary circumstances.” Id. at 237.
The city challenges the trial court’s finding that Reiling could have obtained legal access to Lake Drive before the improvement despite also finding that legal access to Lake Drive did not exist before the improvement. At trial, a court-appointed special master testified that any developer interested in Reiling’s property could have negotiated with the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to obtain access to Lake Drive before the improvement, that developers commonly conduct these types of negotiations, and that the city likely would have agreed to remove any existing access restrictions to increase tax revenues. This testimony, however, conflicted with that of the city engineer, who testified that MnDOT would not have allowed access because a turn lane was planned for the intersection and who testified to other factors that would weigh against the granting of access, such as traffic volume and the speed limit on Lake Drive. The special master’s testimony further conflicted with that of the city appraiser, who testified that any access contemplated in the before-construction setting would have been too close to the improvement project.
Given our narrow standard of review, we conclude that the evidence fairly supports the trial court’s findings on the value of Reiling’s property before the improvement. See Carlson-Lang, 307 Minn. at 373, 240 N.W.2d at 521 (in reviewing findings on special assessment, appellate court must “ascertain whether the evidence as a whole fairly supports” those findings); Dosedel v. City of Ham Lake, 414 N.W.2d 751, 756 (Minn. App. 1987) (“evidence [regarding special assessment] must be against the findings to justify a reversal”). The trial court relied on the special master’s testimony, concluding that he was the only “neutral” witness to appear at trial. See EHW Properties v. City of Eagan, 503 N.W.2d 135, 141 (Minn. App. 1993) (in valuation analysis, court entitled to weigh testimony of two expert witnesses and credit one expert’s testimony over other’s testimony). The special master’s opinion on whether access could be obtained to Lake Drive was given to a “reasonable degree of appraiser certainty” and based upon his own experience and expertise. Further, some projection is necessarily required in order to consider fully the highest and best use of a property. See Holden v. City of Eagan, 393 N.W.2d 526, 528 (Minn. App. 1986) (“Benefits from an improvement are calculated on the market value of the land before and after the improvement based on the highest and best use of the land”); see also State by Humphrey v. Briggs, 488 N.W.2d 811, 814-15 (Minn. App. 1992) (in condemnation case, property valuation based on proposed commercial development admissible where trial court properly considered whether rezoning from residential to commercial likely to occur), review denied (Minn. Sept. 15, 1992); cf. Carlson-Lang, 307 Minn. at 373, 240 N.W.2d at 521 (trial court erred in determining pre-improvement value of property where there was only “slight probability” that city would move to terminate private service). Thus, the evidence fairly supports the court’s finding that Reiling could have obtained legal access to Lake Drive in the before-construction setting.
Reiling claims that he received no special benefit as a result of the improvement project because, as a landowner, he already had a vested right to property access. The evidence at trial, however, does not support his assertion. In the before-construction setting, Reiling’s access was questionable; after the improvement, his access was certain. In addition, the realignment of Hodgson Road maximized his use of the property, thus meeting the specifications of his developer. Further, both roads and their related services were significantly improved. Finally, the highest and best use of the property increased as a result of the upgraded access and upgraded commercial use created by the improvement. Reiling provided no evidence to rebut this evidence, other than his own opinion that no special benefit was conferred on his property. We therefore conclude that the evidence fairly supports the court’s findings on this issue. See Carlson-Lang, 307 Minn. at 373, 240 N.W.2d at 521.
The city claims that the court’s finding that access to Lake Drive after the improvement did not exist is unsupported by the evidence and is inconsistent with its earlier finding that, before the improvement, access could be obtained to Lake Drive. The court’s findings, however, depend on two different road configurations at different stages of the construction project. The right-of-way easement for the new construction project was obtained in 1995, a year before construction began. The court’s failure to include the right-of-way easement in the before-construction setting was therefore proper, because the easement existed solely to facilitate the project. After construction, the right-of-way easement and the new location of the intersection prohibited any other access to Lake Drive from Reiling’s property because any such access would have been too close to the new intersection. The trial court’s treatment of the easements in the before- and after-construction settings was not inconsistent and was fairly supported by the evidence.
Further, the trial court could properly refuse to consider the easement that Reiling obtained from Anoka County and the City of Circle Pines to obtain access to his property from the west. This easement was obtained two-and-one-half years after construction was completed and was not located along the portion of Lake Drive that abutted the northern boundary of Reiling’s property. The cost of an improvement may be assessed on a property only to the extent that the property “benefit[s] by the improvement.” Minn. Stat. § 429.051. The trial court could reasonably refuse to consider the post-improvement access easement when establishing the value of Reiling’s property in the after-construction setting.
Uniformity of Assessment
Reiling contends that the trial court clearly erred in finding that the uniformity requirement was met in this case. See Anderson v. City of Bemidji, 295 N.W.2d 555, 561 (Minn. 1980) (apportionment of assessment among various properties is legislative function on part of city council and will not be overturned unless clearly erroneous). Reiling argues that the assessment was not uniform because his property was the only property which a special assessment was levied, even though 36 other parcels located in the immediate area also benefited in some way by the improvement. He argues that he was required “to not only bear the entire amount of the City’s share of the project, but also bear the cost of road improvements and utilities which are not contiguous to his property.” At trial, however, Reiling presented no evidence to support his claims or to rebut the city’s evidence, which included testimony from the city engineer that the only change to any of the other parcels was a slight widening of the Lake Drive transition zone. The trial court’s findings reflect its consideration of whether each of 36 other parcels located in the area of the improvement was benefited by the improvement. Thus, Reiling has failed to demonstrate that the special assessment was not uniform to his class of property owners as required by Minn. Stat. § 429.051.
Costs and Fees
Reiling challenges the trial court’s taxation of costs and fees, which split the costs and fees of the special master, and declined to award Reiling $450 in fees for his appraiser. A trial court’s decision to award costs and disbursements in a property tax assessment case “is discretionary * * * and in the absence of abuse of discretion * * * will be respected.” DeSutter v. Township of Helena, 489 N.W.2d 236, 241 (Minn. App. 1992) (quotation omitted), review denied (Minn. Sept. 30, 1992).
Early in the proceedings, the parties stipulated to share equally the cost of the special master. In his appellate brief, Reiling argues that in enforcing the stipulation in its October 13, 1997 order, the court “overlooked” its July 9, 1997 order requiring the parties to share equally the cost of the special master. This appears to be a distinction without a difference because both orders, in nearly identical language, require the parties to split the special master fees. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in requiring Reiling to pay $11,870.05 in fees for the special master, where he previously stipulated that he would do so.
As to the $450 appraiser’s fee, the trial court stated that the fee was “not a reasonable cost because [the appraiser’s] testimony was of no value to this court.” We cannot conclude that the trial court abused its discretion rejecting this cost.