With new advantage, developer continues assessment appeal

Published 8:39 pm Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A politically active developer has filed another lawsuit against the city of Suffolk alleging the Assessor’s Office overvalued parcels of land it owned in Pitchkettle Estates and Pitchkettle Farms.

Filed June 29 in Suffolk Circuit Court, the suit from Ainslie Group lists 56 addresses in court documents, alleging the city assessed the parcels above fair market value in fiscal 2012, levying taxes based on those values.

The developer calls for the allegedly erroneous assessments to be corrected, and for the city to refund taxes paid “in an amount proven at trial,” plus court costs.

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Reached by phone Wednesday, Jeff Ainslie, Ainslie Group’s president of sales, operations and finance – his brother, John Ainslie, is the president of construction – declined to comment for this story.

Ainslie Group filed its first lawsuit against the city regarding Pitchkettle property assessments at the end of June 2011, alleging about 71 parcels were over-assessed and asking for a refund of about $100,000, plus interest, on taxes paid from fiscal years 2008 through 2011, court documents state.

Just short of one year later and on the motion of the city, the court dismissed claims against 15 parcels. Ainslie Group was granted leave to amend its application to reflect any tax years in which it owned the properties and paid taxes on them “or was otherwise aggrieved.”

In February 2013, Jeff Ainslie told the Suffolk News-Herald the suit was on hold for negotiations with the city. He had hoped to avoid a trial.

In mid-2013, on the motion of Ainslie Group, the suit was non-suited, according to court filings.

But on Jan. 21, 2014, Ainslie Group filed suit again, claiming erroneous taxes on 55 Pitchkettle parcels for fiscal years 2008 through 2011, according to court filings. Ainslie also amended its claims on the 15 parcels dismissed from the previous suit.

Of the 15 parcels, the periods for which erroneous taxes are alleged were amended from the original suit to reflect fiscal years 2008 for seven of them, 2008 and 2009 for five of them, and 2008 through 2010 for the last three.

All together, this suit, which is scheduled for trial on Aug. 26-27, demands a refund of up to $150,000, plus interest.

According to court documents, expert witnesses for the city will be City Assessor Jean Jackson and Interim Deputy Assessor Robert E. Lee II.

A new law passed in the 2015 General Assembly session requires the assessor’s office to provide a written explanation or justification for an increase in a property’s assessed value if requested by the taxpayer. During the legislation’s passage in the General Assembly this year, Sen. Creigh Deeds, the Charlottesville Democrat, cast the single vote recorded against the legislation. It was carried in the Senate by John Cosgrove, who represents 10 Suffolk voting precincts, and in the House by Suffolk’s Chris Jones, both Republicans.

Ainslie Group, which has also sued over assessments in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, has since 2003 contributed over $50,000 to election candidates and politically active organizations, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, while Jeff and John Ainslie between them have contributed $22,750. Among candidates, they were overwhelmingly Republicans running for state office.

Since 2005, Ainslie Group has donated $11,725 to the Home Builders Association of Virginia. Jeff Ainslie is listed online as chairman of the association’s political action committee, which financially supports candidates for the General Assembly and statewide offices.

The association has contributed at least $1.77 million to the coffers of state election candidates over the years, according to VPAP, the majority Republicans.

The association, which has given Cosgrove $4,250 since 2013 — including $1,000 after this year’s General Assembly session was over — is listed by VPAP as the 17th-largest among his 239 donors.

In a phone interview, Cosgrove said he had no conversations with the association or the Ainslie Group about his property assessments bill, and noted the developer donated to many candidates.

He said he had contact with Jeff Ainslie back in the days when, as a delegate, he served — and chaired for a time — the Virginia Housing Commission.

“I see him at ODU football games, that sort of thing,” Cosgrove said. “But we are not buddies — we don’t play golf together.”

Cosgrove said his recent donations from the association were to help fund significant primary races in 2013 and this year, when the election was held on June 9. He said the bill he carried was specifically for homeowners, who often lack the know-how and the financial resources to challenge assessments.

More knowledgeable of how the process works and with deeper pockets, developers were already able to mount challenges, Cosgrove argued.

The Home Builders Association of Virginia was also contacted for this story, but a spokesman did not respond by deadline.

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the correct effect of Cosgrove’s bill. An earlier version contained inaccurate information.