Challenging an Ag Exemption Denial in Florida
It seems more and more these days local property appraisers are taking a fine-toothed comb to ag exemptions around the state, issuing denials for both existing ag properties and new applicants. Unfortunately for property owners, an ag exemption denial triggers fast-approaching deadlines and rules that must be followed to avoid foreclosing your opportunity to challenge the decision. Be sure you understand the steps to take and what may be required to appeal the denial.
As a new applicant that is denied the ag classification, you’ll receive a Notice of Disapproval from the property appraiser by August of the year you apply. If you receive a Notice and are already classified agricultural, that’s usually the result of an investigator from the property appraiser’s office conducting a field audit or similar review of your property and determining that there’s been a change of use or other issue warranting removal of the ag classification. In that case, you could receive a Notice at any time and it could apply to multiple years. The Notice is a standard form across counties, seen here for reference, and will be accompanied by a TRIM Notice showing the alleged taxes owed. It should also give you some idea of the basis for the denial.
Upon Notice of the denial by the County property appraiser, you have thirty (30) days to appeal or “contest” the decision to either a Special Magistrate or the Value Adjustment Board (VAB), depending on the size of the County. The Special Magistrate is typically an attorney, and the VAB consists of two county commissioners, a school board member, and two members of the public. Although independent of the property appraiser and tax collector, the Magistrate and VAB still operate as an arm of the Department of Revenue, and are bound by Florida Statutes Chapter 194 and Florida Administrative Code, Chapters 12D-9 to 12D-10 in rendering decisions. You do not have to appeal to these quasi-judicial bodies, but it is a much cheaper option to potentially get the denial reversed than pursuing litigation.
If you decide to participate in a VAB or Magistrate hearing, you’ll have to fill out the petition, DR-486, found here, and submit to your local VAB clerk. There might be a small fee (under $100) for the submission. You’ll receive a hearing date and fifteen days prior you have to provide the evidence to the VAB clerk that you plan to use at the hearing to contest the disapproval. Hire a court reporter. Overall, it’s much like an evidentiary hearing in court litigation, where you have an opportunity to present support for your case and take testimony. You do not get the benefit of subpoenaing witnesses, however. The property appraiser will also appear and state their reason for the denial.
Once the hearing occurs, the VAB or Magistrate will likely wait to rule and issue the decision at a later time. If you appeared in front of a Magistrate, that decision is technically only ‘recommended’ and not ‘final,’ as only the VAB can enter a final decision. You will receive notice of when the VAB meets to make that decision. You can appear at that ‘final’ VAB hearing, but cannot present new evidence at that time. That’s because the VAB can just accept the Magistrate findings (and typically do) without review of the underlying record.
Circuit Court Litigation
However you get there, once a final VAB decision is rendered, you have 60 days to appeal to the circuit court. A circuit court action is a de novo review standard, meaning you have a new opportunity to present your case without the court being forced to give weight to the underlying decision. You and the VAB can still incorporate testimony or evidence presented at the VAB hearing into the circuit court litigation, however.
Alternatively, regardless of whether you sought a VAB hearing first, you can instead sue in circuit court within 60 days of the property appraiser certifying the tax rolls, which is typically August or September. Again, however you get there, you must pay the taxes purportedly owed on the Disapproval, or at least what you in good faith believe you owe, prior to filing suit in circuit court against the property appraiser. If you decide to pay what you in ‘good faith’ believe you owe, don’t be sly, as there’s language in the statute that if you’re too far away from what is determined you owe, you may have to pay back the remainder with interest.
Whatever you end up choosing, your first step should be to enforce your right to an informal meeting with the Property Appraiser to get further insight into the decision or potentially correct issues. Doing so will better orient you on whether you should appeal to the VAB or sue the property appraiser directly.
Questions about a Notice of Disapproval? Let’s chat. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a consultation.
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