Saddlebrook suit struck

Published 10:13 pm Friday, January 9, 2015

A Circuit Court judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit against the city that sought to change the city’s assessment of real estate taxes on a subdivision’s open space.

The city began assessing and taxing part of the open space at Saddlebrook Estates, a development off Kings Fork Road, because there is a commercial enterprise — an equestrian center — on the property.

The 151-lot subdivision, developed starting in 2005 by Rhys Smith Associates, was planned around an existing farm, Smith testified on Friday. He decided to preserve the old barn and start the equestrian center as an amenity for the development.

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“We wanted to save that and also create a visual amenity and a use amenity,” he testified. The “active amenity” also allows more lots to be developed than passive open space.

David Christiansen was brought on board to operate Indian Point Farm equestrian center. Christiansen restored or built much of the center’s operations and also restored the old farmhouse, where he now lives.

The barn has 32 stalls, only four of which are currently occupied by horses owned by association members. The remainder board horses owned by people who live elsewhere. Riding lessons also are given at the site.

Neighborhood residents are able to look at the horses, use picnic tables, pick up pecans from a stand of pecan trees and use the area that isn’t fenced in, several witnesses testified on Friday. Christiansen said residents are able to come into the barn only with permission, as being around large animals with which they are unfamiliar could be dangerous, both to the horses and the people.

Open space in subdivisions is not supposed to be taxed, but rather its value is reflected in the increased assessments of lots benefiting from the open space, according to testimony on Friday.

But in 2012, the city sent a tax bill to United Property Associates, the association manager, for fiscal years 2009 through 2011. When the group didn’t pay, the city put a lien on its bank accounts and took the money — about $23,000.

Lawyers protested, and the city eventually decided Christiansen, not the property association, was responsible. It refunded United Property Associates and started going after Christiansen instead.

Christiansen has yet to pay, and about a year ago the city started proceedings to auction the land for unpaid real estate taxes.

“How can I be liable, because I’m a tenant?” Christiansen testified. “The amenity is critical to that subdivision.”

Deputy City Attorney William Hutchings Jr. pointed out that an agreement states that the parties shall pay all real estate taxes.

“That’s just standard language,” Smith said. “It wasn’t an invitation from the city to tax us.”

Judge Carl Eason agreed with the city that the equestrian center is “clearly a commercial enterprise.”

“The only amenity, it seems to me, is the aesthetics of gorgeous animals frolicking through the pastureland,” Eason said.

He dismissed the case on the city’s motion to strike.

Koch said he did not yet know whether his clients would want to appeal but that he would be discussing that with them. He also said he appreciated the court’s attention to all of the evidence.

Eason didn’t seem fazed by the possibility of an appeal.

“I’m not offended a bit if this gets appealed,” he said. “If it gets reversed, all the better, because at least then we’ll have some case law.”