FEMA injunction lifted, property taxes on rise

By Steve Estes

Monroe County’s Truth in Millage Notices (TRIM) were mailed Friday and began appearing in various mailboxes late Monday or later in the week.

The TRIM notices are estimated tax bills for the coming year that outline the valuation of the property and what the various taxing authorities are charging for services in the coming year.

And for some, those notices may have carried a little bit of shocking news.

The county has been litigating against, negotiating with and capitulating to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency over endangered species in the Monroe County for the last six or seven years.

While all that was going on, the federal courts slapped a building injunction against private lots that all but prohibited those who owned vacant lots anywhere close to potential endangered species from getting an allocation to construct a home.

That FEMA injunction, as it was colloquially called, covered vacant residential and commercial property.

It also covered built lots, but they were treated similarly throughout the process.

Because the injunction made it near impossible to build on those lots, the county property appraiser decided that owners who may never be able to do anything except mow their vacant property shouldn’t pay full freight on property taxes.

So the valuation on FEMA-injunction affected properties was decreased by the Property Appraiser on average by 60 percent.

And for many years, that low valuation remained while the FEMA injunction settlement worked its way through court and the legislative process in the county.

Last year, the FEMA injunction was lifted and replaced by the Permit Review Process where instead of a blanket prohibition, USFWS issued assessment guides for the various species that can be used to determine if building on a particular lot will have an impact on species.

With the FEMA injunction lifted, the county property appraiser lifted the credit on affected lots.

And some of those lots jumped in assessed value by 60 percent.

The rise in taxes estimated, however, could have been barely noticeable depending on the history of the vacant.

According to Scott Russell, Monroe County Property Appraiser, vacant lots that were listed in the FEMA injunction had been receiving an automatic reduction in value. Once that injunction was lifted, normal market rate valuations took place.

“And it’s possible some of those increases were significant,” said Russell.

The actual tax increase, however, should have been muted by the state’s cap on assessed value of 10 percent for non-homesteaded and commercial property.

“Where property owners will notice the largest difference is school taxes,” said Russell.

He said that the 10 percent cap doesn’t apply to taxes levied by the school board so the full rise in valuation of all those lots formerly on the FEMA injunction list is shown in the school tax columns.

“It’s possible that you could realize a significant increase in school taxes,” said Russell.

If the property was on the FEMA list, had returned to nearly its original valuation before the injunction decrease was applied, without the 10 percent cap for school board, properties could see that increase.

The property appraiser’s office at the time used 60 percent as a blanket decrease for land impacted by the FEMA list. But not all of those will see a 60 percent valuation increase now that the injunction is lifted, said Russell.

“The appraisal is based on just market value compared to similar properties in similar geographic areas. Some areas have recovered value faster than others. Those that haven’t returned to levels before the injunction decrease will only see the valuation to current levels,” said Russell.

Because of the 10 percent cap on non-homesteaded properties and commercial property, Russell says the TRIM notice will tell owners how much of their current valuation has been set aside for tax levy purposes, for everything but school board.

Russell said that no separate provisions were made for vacant lands or commercial properties on Big Pine and No Name Key even though those two islands are covered by the regulations in the Habitat Conservation Plan rather than the new permit review process.

“If a property owner feels as though their development expectations haven’t changed in that area, they should contact the appraiser’s office and ask for an informal review. We are aware that there will be adjustments to be made,” said Russell.

Such requests will be handled on a case-by-case basis, he said.

“While appraisals are done with a much broader brush, appeals have to be done for a specific lot. We need to know the specifics of the parcel before we can make a determination whether an adjustment needs to be done,” Russell said.

One such property owner on Big Pine Key is Dick Beal, owner of Skeeter’s Marine on US 1.

When the FEMA injunction was lifted on his storage only property the valuation increased by more than $150,000. His tax levy for everything except school taxes was capped at 10 percent increase, but the school levy went up by more than $300 per year.

“I just don’t understand how my property went up so drastically in taxes when virtually nothing has changed in regulations because of the HCP on Big Pine Key,” said Beal. “I still have to apply for a biological opinion through the review process to get a determination on whether the property is buildable and to what extent.”

“With the stroke of a pen, it was decided that my property was worth more than $150,000 more this year than last year and virtually nothing has changed for me,” said Beal.

Russell said those are the types of special circumstances that should prompt property owners to call his office for a meeting.

With the high percentage of folks who own vacant land in Monroe County but live elsewhere, many of the valuation increases will simply go by unnoticed. In some cases the increases could be just a few dollars.

According to Summerland Key Attorney Lee Rohe, property owners who don’t appeal their appraisal within the time frame this year won’t get the chance to do so retroactively after the 10 percent increases continue to pile up in coming years.

The TRIM notices also don’t give property owners a complete picture of what will be owed come November. The TRIM is an estimate if the taxing jurisdictions don’t change anything prior to final adoption in September.

But the local TRIM’s don’t include the wastewater assessment for the various sewer systems currently under construction in the Keys.

Property owners in the Cudjoe Regional were notified by first-class mail earlier this year of the full assessment for sewers on their property, and if they elect the 20-year amortization, they will add $310 to the estimate for a picture of final taxes to be paid come November.

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