Lawsuit challenges county appraisal
PITKIN COUNTY An Arizona real estate magnate has filed a lawsuit alleging the Pitkin County Assessor’s Office erred when it appraised an Old Snowmass home at market value instead of designating it for agricultural use. SM Coles LLC’s lawsuit claims that if the 75 acres had been correctly appraised as agricultural, the property owner’s tax bill would be tens of thousands of dollars less than what it currently is. Assessor’s records show the same property had taxes of $181 for 2004, the last year the land was deemed agricultural, and taxes of $33,749 for 2005, when it was judged at market value.According to the assessor’s office, the land was purchased by SM Coles LLC – a corporation managed by real estate baron Scott M. Coles – for $3.85 million in 2006. Coles is the CEO and chairman of Mortgages Ltd., Arizona’s oldest and largest mortgage banker and private lender, with over $3.3 billion in transactions for 2006.Larry Fite, chief appraiser for the assessor’s office, said it does not appear the estate is primarily used for agricultural purposes. “[The Coles property] did not have sufficient agricultural use for the classification,” Fite said.He added: “It didn’t qualify as either a farm or ranch. We couldn’t classify it as a ranch based on the grazing.”Fite, however, stopped short of likening the case to those seen with “rent-a-cow ranchers,” a term used to describe owners of luxury homes who keep a small number of animals or cut hay on a corner of large parcels to take advantage of low commercial agriculture taxes. The most publicized case came in 2002, when Pitkin County commissioners granted actress Goldie Hawn agricultural designation for her second home in Old Snowmass.”The agricultural classification is based on the actual use of the property,” Fite said. “It must be used as a farm or a ranch and they need to prove the business aspect of what they’re doing.”Locally, SM Coles LLC also owns a $10 million, 10,000-square-foot home at the base of the Buttermilk Ski Area’s Tiehack side. According to the Arizona Republic, the LLC has snatched up numerous multimillion-dollar homes in the past few years.In 2005, the previous owner of the Snowmass parcel sued the assessor’s office, an action that is still pending in Pitkin County District Court. When the land was again judged vacant in this go-round of assessing, the decision was appealed by Coles but denied by the Pitkin County Board of Equalization. This suit claims that the land is being leased to cattle ranchers for grazing and that the assessor only did one site visit in order to establish that the land was not agricultural. Fite said that in 17 years of working in the assessor’s office, the 2005 lawsuit was the first one filed against the assessor. Now, the third lawsuit against the office in that span is regarding the same 75-acre property.The second lawsuit was filed recently by relatives of oil tycoon Jack Grynberg, president of Grynberg Petroleum Co., who asked a Pitkin County district judge to slash the value the assessor’s office set on a home by approximately $341,000, after earlier convincing a county appeals board to cut the value by an initial $100,000.Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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