A Chester County judge has ruled the state’s Mansion House Rule — traditionally used in cases where a residential property straddles a municipal line — may be used to assess taxes for a commercial property that sits on two tax parcels.
Court of Common Pleas Judge Mark L. Tunnell accepted the line of reasoning set forth by the county’s chief assessor to recalculate the tax assessment of two parcels of land under the rule, which can be traced back to 1842.
The Mansion House Rule states that a residential lot straddling a county line, for example, will be assessed in the region in which the “mansion house” lies (the rules goes on to address what happens if a township or city or borough line splits the property). In the case that the boundary splits the mansion house, it’s up to the property owner where the property is assessed. But the owner has to act on that interest, or the land gets assessed in the county where the larger portion of the mansion house lies.
For the instant case, the court declined to elaborate on the method of assessment proffered by the Luke A. D’Onofrio Trust, which appealed to the court of common pleas. Instead, Tunnell devoted his analysis in a seven-page opinion to applying the Mansion House Rule to the facts of the case.
“The assessment office employed a method of assessment apportionment that is in accordance with the treatment of similar situations,” Tunnell said. “Admittedly, this case has to do with a commercial building that is split by tax parcel lines, not a mansion house split by township or county boundary lines. But the logic is the same.”
But the trust’s attorney said in an interview that the court’s analysis, while it became somewhat of a moot point for his client, was the wrong one.
“This is the first time a judge has applied the mansion house rule to two properties owned by two family members,” said Chadds Ford, Pa., attorney Donald J. Weiss, who represented the trust.
In the case, a mother and son initially purchased the three-acre property in 2005, Weiss said. At that point, the acreage sat on two tax parcels. The property owners built a 20,000-square-foot warehouse straddling the two tax parcels, with about 62 percent of the building falling into one and the remainder sitting on the other, Tunnell said.
The parcels were initially assessed separately, but, according to the opinion, the Chester County Tax Assessment Office combined them into one parcel using a process called “reverse subdivision.”
But that was after In re Appeal of Luke A. D’Onofrio had been filed and Weiss said the only reason he litigated the matter was because his client’s portion was initially over-assessed at about 90 percent of the total property when, in reality, that parcel only took up about 60 percent of the warehouse.
He said the court’s analysis was not supported by the statute, but he was pleased to have saved his client about $4,000 a year because the parcels were combined. This came despite having to go through what Weiss called the unnecessary “gyrations and procedures” of litigating the case.
The assessed tax value of the whole property is $995,910, according to the opinion. The market value of the warehouse property was close to $1.8 million.
Weiss said a court has “absolutely” never connected the Mansion House Rule to a piece of commercial property that sits on two tax parcels.
“I think he had the right result for the wrong reasons,” Weiss said.
But the attorney representing the Chester County board of assessment appeals said the court delivered an appropriate analysis.
“It’s a reasonable way to get there,” said Colleen A. Preston of Buckley, Brion, McGuire, Morris & Sommer in West Chester, Pa.
Tunnell noted in his November 5 opinion the warehouse was “until very recently” split between the two parcels.
“The property owners could have, in conformity with the statute, discussed the matter with the assessment office and requested that the building be assessed on one parcel or the other,” Tunnell said. “They did not do so.”
(Copies of the seven-page opinion in In re Appeal of Luke A. D’Onofrio, PICS No. 12-2146, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •