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Land Value 'Correction' Surprises Homeowners

"We've asked for a plain-language explanation from DTA," said Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason). "My question is, why is a small percentage of vacant, undeveloped land apparently driving the land values for all developed property?"

Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon) said the one-year change is striking. "The assessors need to be pressed to justify their rather dramatic attribution of value to the land," he said.

Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said he has asked County Attorney David P. Bobzien for an opinion on whether the board can challenge the tax department's methodology and push for a reassessment of values. He said the agency is playing a questionable game of catch-up.

"It appears that we are behind in keeping up on raw land, and now to bury that, we depreciated people's structures, all in one year," he said.

McKay added that he was especially concerned that the spike in land values would result in more homes being torn down in favor of new homes that are wildly out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.

"We've said that the land is way more valuable than the houses. Are we not encouraging more teardowns?" he asked.

Supervisors said they are also miffed at Greenlief's failure to signal the board that such a major correction was in the works. Greenlief said the study of land values was discussed with the Board of Equalization, the nine-member panel appointed by supervisors to hear homeowner appeals and change assessments. Board of Equalization members told the county staff last year that in hearing tax cases, they had noticed that assessed land values were out of step.

Greenlief said he should have been more careful about keeping supervisors and taxpayers in the loop.

"I would accept responsibility for that," he said. "I'd have to say that it was an oversight on my part that we didn't do a better job. The values are correct. It's the process that needs to be better."

Loudoun County Assessor Todd Kaufman said that sudden, large reapportionments are not uncommon in places such as Fairfax because the dearth of undeveloped land leaves little for assessors to work with in comparing parcels. Sometimes it can take several years for enough sales to accrue in developed counties before sufficient data are available to update the value of underlying land, he said. Those updates can appear in the form of spikes on a property owner's annual assessment.

"Loudoun's different than Fairfax County," Kaufman said. "There's preliminary subdivisions being developed all the time in Loudoun."

In Alexandria, where assessments dipped overall, the land values rose on average about 10 percent in the city, with about three-quarters of neighborhoods affected. The values rose because "the location is so desirable," said Cindy Smith-Page, director of real estate assessments for Alexandria.

"So many properties have been gutted or demolished to build houses that are newer and larger," she said.

Smith-Page said that she has received some calls questioning the land-value increase, but not many, because overall assessments have not increased.

Prince William County will not send out its assessments until the weekend of March 14.

Staff writers Kirstin Downey, Kristen Mack and Jonathan Mummolo contributed to this report.

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