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La Plata County residents are raising a ruckus over property valuations

Jan 10, 2024Jan 10, 2024

Greed. Price gouging. Theft.

"Everyone is kind of freaking out about the percentage increase," said Kim Cofman, a real estate agent in Durango with Sotheby's International Realty.

La Plata County property owners are decrying, at times with excessive verbiage, the notices of value delivered to them on May 1.

The notices contain the assessed property values, upon which property taxes for 2023 (to be paid in early 2024) will be calculated. And homeowners, some of whom have made no improvements to their properties in the two-year cycle of revaluation, have received assessed values that are 40%, 60% or even 100% higher than the one issued in 2021.

Bill Fisher said he opened his notice of valuation "with a great sense of dread."

The dread was justified.

His Edgemont Ranch home, which he purchased for $699,000 in 2016, was valued at $764,000 in 2021.

This year, the value had jumped 46%, to $1.12 million.

"Three sides of the foundation of the house are slowly sinking – that's caused quite a number of interior cracks in drywall, walls and ceiling," he said. " … So if I put the house on the market and someone came in to look at it, they would absolutely be asking about those cracks and offering less money."

He is one of 900 property owners, as of Friday, to appeal his property's assessed value with the county assessor's office. By comparison, there were a total of 615 appeals during the last round of valuations two years ago. The deadline to file an appeal is Thursday.

Based on the needed work on Fisher's house, he may have a compelling case for an appeal. But many of the property owners lodging vociferous objections with the county may not understand the assessment process. And if the mass appraisal process has undervalued a property, appealing that valuation could result in one's valuation increasing even more.

Assessor Carrie Woodson is staunch in her assertion that as an elected official, she serves the people of La Plata County. And her job is to accurately assess property values.

"I’m disconnected from taxes," she said. "I do values."

Property taxes are determined by multiplying the "actual value" of a property by the assessment rate – for residential properties, that rate will drop to 6.765% from 7.15% for the 2023 tax year – to yield the "assessed value." The assess value is then multiplied by the mill levy, determined by various taxing entities such as the county, municipality, and fire, school and library districts, to produce a tax burden.

Woodson's office produces the "actual value" of all properties in the county using the market value of nearby similar properties that have recently sold.

She and her staff members work within a two-year cycle. The latest notices of value are based upon the 6,100 property sales that took place in the county between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2022.

"We review those sales and look at them by neighborhood and by area and determine how much have they changed from the value we currently have on them," Woodson said. "Then we take that percent (change) and apply it to all properties in that area."

The process, known as mass appraisal, is not perfect, Woodson said. Appeals are a critical part of determining an accurate valuation.

"It doesn't always fall fairly on everyone's property depending on quality, condition, things like that," she said. "So it is an important part of the process to say, ‘Hey, this didn't quite hit my house correctly and this here's why.’"

Older homes in poor condition surrounded by lavish new domiciles may not have received an accurate valuation, she said.

If a property owner files an appeal, an appraiser from Woodson's office will go out and individually inspect the property in question.

But, critically, Woodson does not "set" property values.

"We are required by the state of Colorado to match market value," she said. "And we’re audited on that process to make sure we’ve done that correctly."

Cofman, the real estate agent, said that like many of her clients, she was also shocked to see her home's actual value increase by 57%.

"My first reaction was, holy moly, that's way more than the market has increased – this isn't right," she said. "But then if you look at the actual valuation, it's still within fair market value."

The median change in property value in the county was 20%, Woodson said. But in certain pockets, such as Cofman's home in the Timberline neighborhood, values shot up far more.

Even 20% is a notable increase, Woodson said. The median increase in valuations delivered in 2021 and 2019 was about 5% both years.

Despite conspiratorial murmurs that her office is increasing values to produce more revenue for the county, or that values had been kept artificially low thanks to revenue from the now-declining gas industry, this year's valuations correspond to Durango's housing market.

"The data doesn't lie," said real estate agent John Wells, owner of The Wells Group.

The largest escalation in real estate values the area has seen in decades occurred during the valuation period, from mid-2020 to mid-2022, he said. As was the case in prime real estate pockets nationwide, low interest rates and the county's high quality of life for those working remotely fueled a surge in property sales and prices.

The 6,100 property sales in the last cycle far exceeded the typical range of 2,500 to 3,500 sales.

And those sales drove up prices, particularly for previously "affordable" properties, such as condos and homes under $500,000.

The residents who already owned those sorts of properties are not thrilled.

George Richardson owns one of those properties.

His condo in the Rivergate complex was valued at $551,450 in 2021. According the assessor's notice this year, it is now worth 21% more – $667,050.

"What astounds me is that I know of no other units in Building Three that are the two-level type units that have sold for anything close to what the evaluation is," he said.

But Richardson may have a valid appeal – the inventory for his unit in the assessor's database shows three bedrooms, but he says his apartment has only two. Incorrect inventory, Woodson said, is precisely the kind of discrepancy that can result in a more accurate reevaluation.

But experts agree that griping about the percentage increase in an appeal is unlikely to change anything.

Dianne Miller-Shahan owns 5.6 acres on the Florida Mesa, where she lives in a modular home. The actual value of the property, as determined by the assessor, jumped $85,510 this year.

"I have done no improvements to the property that warrants such a massive increase," Miller-Shahan said in an email to The Durango Herald.

But, her lack of improvements does not mean the value of her property has not increased.

To formulate a tenable appeal, property owners can refute the square footage or inventory of a property, or they can provide examples of comparable properties that sold for less. Real estate offices have been flooded with requests from clients searching for comparable properties to use as evidence in their appeal.

Wells said that when clients come to his firm requesting comparable properties, more times than not he provides the data but warns that it is unlikely to result in a successful appeal.

Anyone who still wants to file a protest over their property's assessed value has until Thursday to do so. An online form can be found on the county assessor's website.

Notices of final determination will be delivered by June 30.

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