CHARLESTON -- Monroe County commissioners imposed unconstitutional property taxes on 113 owners of valuable land near Union, the owners pleaded to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals on Sept. 8.
The owners asked the Justices to reverse Circuit Judge Robert Irons, who denied their appeal of assessments on about 1,000 acres at Walnut Springs Mountain Reserve.
Irons upheld valuations between $26,000 and $30,000 per acre.
The lawyer for the owners, Michael Caryl of Charleston, told the Justices the county denied them equal protection under state and national constitutions.
He said the county valued Walnut Springs properties according to new sale prices while valuing other properties according to old sale prices.
Justice Menis Ketchum said, "I got taxed that way."
Justice Robin Davis asked if he suggested that two recent decisions, Woodlands and Bayer, had no impact.
Those decisions required clear and convincing evidence of assessment error.
Caryl said the decisions didn't address equal protection.
Chief Justice Brent Benjamin asked if the entire system was suspect.
Caryl said owners paid nine to 43 times as much as their neighbors.
Ketchum asked if the assessor took steps to adjust assessments countywide.
Caryl said it would take 12 years to cure the disparities.
Ketchum asked if the remedy was to raise assessments on others.
Caryl said the remedy was to reduce assessments on Walnut Springs.
John Hussell of Charleston, representing assessor Donna Huffman, started by saying that wealthy individuals were coming into the county.
Benjamin said, "We are not getting into a class argument here, are we?"
Hussell chose not to get into it. He said Huffman followed a laborious process.
"She did everything right," he said.
He said she used state tax department software to double check.
For the county commission, attorney Paul Papadopoulos said, "Monroe County ought to be applauded."
He said Huffman and commissioners went to great lengths to afford due process.
Caryl said guidance from the state tax department was "a device to appear objective but facilitate disparity."
The Justices took it under advisement.
A number of limited liability companies have bought land at Walnut Springs, intending to develop homes and amenities.
Huffman set new values on the properties for tax year 2007. Owners appealed to the county commission and then to Irons.
Last year Irons ruled that Huffman acted in conformity with statutory authority, state regulations and case law.
He wrote that "she valued the property appropriately within the guidelines prescribed by the West Virginia Code."
He wrote that the commission properly weighed the evidence and committed no error.