Road Rage 

Paying property taxes on public roads

When Doug Brown looks at his Boise property, something seems missing.

A quick glance at the official plat of his lot reveals that it's not just a feeling. He's missing more than 950 square feet. That's the portion of Brown's property that lies beneath a cul-de-sac at the end of a public road.

The crescent-shaped chunk of land is the center of a dispute between Brown and the Ada County Highway District, which has laid claim to the land. The agency's lawyers argue it's been used as a public road for more than 20 years.

Problem is, Brown still owns the land, on paper at least. He's still getting charged property taxes on it.

"It's not a lot of property and it's not a lot of money, but it's my property and it's my money and they're taking it from me," Brown said.

He feels slighted by the agency and said officials stopped returning calls one year ago. Brown then took his plight to the public in any way he could, including getting a story in the Idaho Statesman last year.

The two sides are at a stalemate, with the Ada County assessor unable to do much of anything until one side gives—which seems unlikely.

A new bill that would have solved the problem and similar ownership disputes across the state is unlikely to see the light of day this session.

ACHD had been working with House Majority Leader Mike Moyle on legislation that would have required all county assessors to identify areas of similar public-private ownership disputes, and deal with them, ending the practice of charging property taxes on public roads.

Scott Spears, ACHD's staff attorney, said the assessors mounted a strong opposition to the proposal, claiming it would have been too much work for their offices. So ACHD altered the legislation, requiring the assessors to respond only to landowners who requested adjustments in their property lines.

Moyle, a Republican from Star, said he hoped to have the bill printed and introduced in committee before the end of the session, likely to happen sometime before the end of March, but didn't expect any decision on the issues. Instead, he wants legislators to work on the bill over the summer and take it up again next year.

Moyle said he had heard about similar cases, but like other legislators, had assumed counties were not taxing property owners for those sections of land.

"Quite frankly, it's a crime that a county assessor is charging a guy taxes for the ground [under the road] anyway," he said.

Rep. Les Bock, a Boise Democrat, said he spoke to both Brown and ACHD Commissioner John Franden about the property in question. Bock said Franden told him about the proposed legislation and Bock thought the issue had been taken care of, but he admits that he didn't follow the bill's progress.

Bock, who is now running for his district's Senate seat, said if elected, he would be willing to sponsor the legislation next year.

Brown's property, as well as that of his three neighbors also affected by the cul-de-sac, are unique within Ada County, according to Ada County Assessor Bob McQuade, who said this is the only time he's dealt with such a conflict.

But Spears said there are other areas across the state where landowners are paying property taxes on public roads.

Most instances occur on older roads that were barely maintained roadways when created, but were paved and maintained by local agencies over the decades. According to Idaho code, any road maintained for at least five years by a road authority becomes public property, Spears said.

Unfortunately, these pieces of land never officially changed ownership, leaving landowners to pay taxes on land they can't use.

In Brown's case, the land in question is marked with temporary property lines on the official map on file with Ada County. According to the map, the turnaround were supposed to turn into a through road when a neighboring subdivision was developed.

When this happened, the curved portions of the turnaround would be returned to their original owners. It's been more than 20 years since those plans were drawn up, and the new subdivision is finally going in—without the need for a through road.

Brown bought his home six years ago, and said he didn't know about the dispute until he looked at the original map. Now, he worries that the dispute would make his property unsellable until the issue is resolved.

McQuade agrees that the property dispute puts a stain on the deed, but Spears said that argument doesn't hold any weight since there is no question that the turnaround is not going anywhere.

Brown has talked to both ACHD and the Assessor's Office to no avail. ACHD staunchly maintains that it owns the roundabout, and McQuade said he can't redraw the property lines until he is given legal documentation showing a change in ownership.

"There's absolutely nothing we can do," McQuade said. "That plat is in essence like a deed. [We're] not permitted to just go and sit down and change things. We have to strictly go off the recorded documents and that's where we're at the impasse."

Brown took the issue to the Ada County Board of Equalization last year, asking for a 13 percent reduction in his property taxes to make up for the 13 percent of his property under the road.

The board granted him a $2,000 reduction from the $62,000 assessed value of his land, representing a roughly 3 percent decrease. Brown calls the $2,000 total an arbitrary number that doesn't address the unfairness of his situation.

McQuade, though, said that land values are not based on the exact size of a land parcel, but on a combination of factors including location.

The temporary property line designation is no longer used for the simple fact that it was confusing for property owners, Spears said. Unfortunately, Brown's property is too old to have benefitted from ACHD's realization.

Brown said he was hopeful that the attention would force ACHD to resolve the issue, but no such luck.

"[There's] not anything that we need to do," Spears said. "By virtue of the plat, that land was dedicated to [ACHD]."

The one surefire way to take care of the problem would be for Brown to quitclaim the property, turning over the section in question to ACHD. But Brown he doesn't want to pony up the several thousand dollars it would cost to hire a surveyor to remeasure the property and file an amendment to the plat.

Besides, there's the principle of it.

"I never will," he said about the idea of the quitclaim. "The Highway District has been exceedingly rotten to me."

Spears said ACHD has offered to help Brown with the quitclaim procedure, offering to prepare the necessary paperwork and provide a surveyor to do the work.

But at this point, Brown want more than just a decision on who owns the land. Ideally, he wants back taxes and legal fees.

"If it's mine, I want it," he said. "If it's not, stop taxing me on it."

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