This opinion will be unpublished and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
Ramon Belanger, et al.,
City of Long Lake,
Filed May 9, 2000
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 972267
Arlo H. Vande Vegte, P.O. Box 39, Long Lake, MN 55356 (for respondents)
Christopher J. Dietzen, James M. Susag, Larkin, Hoffman, Daly & Lindgren, Ltd., 1500 Norwest Financial Center, 7900 Xerxes Ave. S., Bloomington, MN 55431-1194 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Davies, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Harten, Judge.
U N P U B L I S H E D O P I N I O N
After appellant City of Long Lake imposed special assessments for street reconstruction, 15 property owners appealed the assessment. The trial court, concluding that the assessments exceeded the special benefit to the individual properties, vacated the assessments and remanded for reassessment. Appellant claims: (1) the property owners did not rebut the “presumption of validity” that attaches to the assessment roll; and (2) the trial court erred in rejecting the city’s appraisal testimony. We affirm.
The Long Lake City Council voted to assess about 75% of the total project cost of a road-reconstruction project equally on the 35 properties fronting the three improved roads. Fifteen owners appealed under Minn. Stat. § 429.081 (1998).
At trial, the property owners testified that the improvements did not increase the fair-market value of their property; some even claimed the improvements had a negative affect on their property value because of aesthetic impacts, drainage problems, tree loss, and driveway damage.
The property owners also presented an appraisal expert, who testified that the improvements had no effect on the fair-market value of the fronting properties. The appraiser did not perform “before and after” appraisals of the properties; instead, he performed a sales-price comparison between six properties on the improved streets that were sold after the improvements, and 18 other properties in the Long Lake area sold during the same period. He testified that this comparison showed the improvements made no difference in price.
Appellant called its public works director, administrator, and engineer, who all testified that the three roads had reached the end of their “useful life.” Appellant also called an appraiser, who testified that the improvements resulted in an increase in value of approximately five percent for each of the fronting properties. He formed his opinion by comparing the Long Lake properties to properties in Brooklyn Center that also fronted on a road-improvement project. He testified that, in Brooklyn Center, the property values had increased between 1.3% and 39.14%. He noted, however, that the higher the property value, the less the improvements increased property value and, on cross-examination, he admitted that respondents’ properties were all of significantly higher value than any of the Brooklyn Center properties.
The trial court rejected the city’s appraisal testimony as flawed and unsupported, observing that the Brooklyn Center project was not comparable, the city’s appraiser did not follow his own logic (i.e., the higher the property values, the less the increase in market value), and he arbitrarily adopted a five percent increase in value despite the fact that the Long Lake properties were all of significantly higher value than any of the Brooklyn Center properties.
The trial court concluded that the 15 properties had received a special benefit from the road improvement, but rejected the claim that the fair-market value of the properties increased in an amount greater than, or equal to, the special assessment.
The trial court remanded to the city for a
specific determination of the special assessment amounts which take into account the increase in * * * the fair market value of the fee simple interest in the property before and after the installation of the improvements.
Minn. Stat. § 429.051 (1998) permits a city to assess the cost of an improvement on property benefited by the improvement. The power to impose special assessments is limited in that the assessment may not exceed the special benefit to the property. Carlson-Lang Realty v. City of Windom, 307 Minn. 368, 369, 240 N.W.2d 517, 519 (1976). “Special benefit” means the increase in market value resulting from the improvement. Id. This court-imposed limitation ensures that the assessment does not result in a taking without fair compensation. Buettner v. City of St. Cloud, 277 N.W.2d 199, 202 (Minn. 1979).
The city is presumed to have set the assessment legally and, thus, introduction of the assessment roll constitutes prima facie proof that the assessment does not exceed the special benefit. Id. But this “presumption of validity” disappears when adverse evidence on the question of value is introduced. Id. at 204. Once the presumption disappears, the trial court makes an independent factual determination of assessment evidence, giving no deference to the city assessment roll. Tri-State Land Co. v. City of Shoreview, 290 N.W.2d 775, 777-78 (Minn. 1980).
Appellant claims the property owners did not introduce evidence sufficient to rebut the “presumption of validity” accorded the assessment roll. This court has held, however, that lay testimony from the property owner on property value is competent evidence sufficient to rebut this presumption. Dosedel v. City of Ham Lake, 414 N.W.2d 751, 756 (Minn. App. 1987). Here, the property owners, to show their property did not increase in value, both testified themselves and offered the testimony of an expert appraiser. Thus, the presumption of validity disappeared and the trial court properly conducted an independent review of the assessment evidence.
Appellant claims that the presumption was never rebutted because the trial court, by concluding that the properties had received a special benefit, rejected the testimony from the property owners and their appraiser (that there was no benefit). But the trial court was free to accept the testimony in part. The fact that the trial court did not agree that the benefit was zero does not alter the fact that the evidence of the property owners and their appraiser was sufficient for the trial court to find the presumption of assessment-roll validity was rebutted and, thus, to rule in respondents’ favor.
Appellant also claims the trial court erred in rejecting the testimony of the city’s appraiser. In a bench trial,
[f]indings of fact, whether based on oral or documentary evidence, shall not be set aside unless clearly erroneous, and due regard shall be given to the opportunity of the trial court to judge the credibility of the witnesses.
Minn. R. Civ. P. 52.01. The record supports the finding that the opinions of the city’s appraiser were flawed. As the trial court noted in its findings, the city’s appraiser used Brooklyn Center properties that were not comparable and then did not follow his own observations on the different impact on high-value properties.
Appellant cites Independent School District No. 709 v. City of Duluth, 287 Minn. 200, 204, 177 N.W.2d 812, 815 (1970), which declared that “[c]ourts will not substitute their judgment for that of the assessing body.” But this statement has been implicitly overruled by subsequent authority such as Buettner and Tri-State, which hold that the trial court conducts an independent review of the competing evidence, once contesting evidence on the special-benefit issue is introduced.