Her day in tax court: Frankfort resident disputes tax on ‘buildable’ wetlands

Jan. 28—FRANKFORT — Thelma Rider last February opened her 2023 tax assessment notice, read the dollar amounts and thought: This has to be a typo.

“It had to be an error, right?” Rider said of her thinking at the time. “No one’s property increases by 45 times in just one year, especially when it’s wetlands you can’t build on.”

Tax records show a vacant lot Rider owns was assessed at $1,100 in 2022, then increased to $45,300 in 2023.

Rider says she thinks the amounts are, in her words, “bunk,” while the City of Frankfort’s assessor says sales data justify the rise and is sticking by the increase.

“It is both presumptuous and incorrect to assume that a parcel being small and located within a flood zone/swamp renders it without value or unbuildable,” Christy Brow, Frankfort assessor, said in a tax court response brief.

Both sides this week presented their case during a state tax tribunal hearing, though a ruling isn’t expected for a week or more.

But Rider says there are bigger issues afoot than her own property taxes, pointing to an appeal process she says uncovered errors, costly legal bills and transparency issues.

“My concern is it feels like to me a tax assessor can just throw some number at the wall and hope it sticks,” Rider said. “What about people who can’t afford an attorney?”

Rider says she’s so far spent about $5,000 on attorney fees to fight the new assessments.

Eagle’s nest

Rider, 82, owns a distinctive piece of property she sometimes refers to as the eagle’s nest.

It’s located on three lots on a narrow strip of land on what locals call Betsie Lake — a wetland connecting the Betsie River with Betsie Bay, between the M-22 bridge and an old train trestle — and home to sandhill cranes, ducks and bald eagles.

The boundary between Crystal Lake Township and the City of Frankfort cuts through Rider’s property, her house is built on a township lot and her two adjacent vacant lots are in the city limits.

The present tax saga began when Rider opened the envelope with assessments for the vacant city lots.

There was the one for $45,300 on the lot next door to her house, but records show the other lot she owns actually went up more, from $1,200 in 2022 to $56,100 in 2023.

“You can’t build on them, they flood,” Rider said. “The middle parcel doesn’t have road access, it’s landlocked. I don’t get it.”

Rider, a widow long-retired from a career in the records departments of the Michigan State Police and the Michigan Department of Corrections, appealed last year to Frankfort’s board of review.

To prepare for the board’s March 2023 meeting, Rider says she asked city staff for copies of her property tax records, found multiple errors and tried to correct them, but was told these issues, too, had to go before the board of review.

Tax assessment timeline

Frankfort has long contracted out its assessing work, a common practice for smaller municipalities, which often don’t generate enough year-round work to justify a full-time employee.

Every February, property owners in Michigan receive assessment notices in the mail, with the words, “This is not a tax bill,” at the top. Assessment notices show taxable value, state equalized value and assessed value which can, and often do, change from year to year.

An assessor is tasked with determining these amounts by noting any improvements and looking at sales of comparable properties.

In March, a municipality’s board of review meets to hear appeals by property owners who either do not agree with an assessment or take issue with some other property tax decision.

“I never deter anyone from appealing,” Brow said Wednesday. “Most assessors do not take it personally.”

It’s not unusual for a local board of review meeting to last several hours over multiple days so all property owners can be heard.

Board of Review meetings are subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act — meaning, they are public — and training requirements for board members are set by the state legislature.

Rider’s appeal

Frankfort’s board of review met for 12 hours over two days, March 13 and 14, and heard appeals from several property owners.

Rider says she attended all day both days, after submitting documents she said showed the new assessments on her property were excessive.

She had a survey showing one lot is landlocked and setback requirements render both lots unbuildable; a letter from the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy categorizing both lots as wetlands; and photographs of regular flooding.

Her appeal was discussed on the second day of the meeting, and denied.

“Assessor to work with zoning administrator to determine if buildable,” the denial notice stated. “Assessor can then work with future value.”

Rider says board members discussed her case when she was out of the room, then later used her allotted time in their own discussions about errors to her records and she wasn’t able to present her evidence.

“There was a lunch break on the second day and when I came back in, they were discussing my file,” Rider said, of board of review members. “It was the only time in two days I wasn’t in the room. They said they weren’t, but I could tell it was my file because of all the sticky notes I’d put there.”

Board of review members are responsible for overseeing decisions made by an assessor, but Rider said in her case it worked the other way around. Rider says she witnessed board members ask Brow what to do about her appeal and heard Brow tell them to deny it.

Brow said she recalls this differently.

Her standard advice to the boards of review she works with, Brow said, is to tell members if they do not believe they have enough information to grant an appeal, they need to deny it.

It was at this point that Rider said she decided to pursue her appeal to the state, and hired an attorney.

“There was absolutely no basis for changing these assessments, which was apparently done without even a site visit,” attorney Paul Callam said in a petition to the state tax tribunal.

Callam said, rather than admit a mistake, Brow “doubled down” by suggesting the lots could be developed into parking, a marina or dockominiums — land uses neither Frankfort zoning nor state wetlands regulations would allow.

Brow said these comparables were to show unbuildable wetlands still have value.

Digging deeper

Rider is no stranger to accessing public records and in March, April and November 2023, she filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the City of Frankfort.

By this point, Rider said, she’d begun to wonder if others were experiencing similar problems with their assessments.

“To my way of thinking, you can’t resolve a problem until you get it out in the open,” Rider said.

A review of state records shows a number of property owners in jurisdictions where Brow is or was the assessor, have taken their appeal to the state tax tribunal.

Brow says this isn’t unusual, many assessors have tax tribunal experiences at one point or another, and it comes with the job.

State records show Brow prevailed in some of these state cases, property owners prevailed in others and some were dismissed because property owners did not file the correct form or did not file it on time.

Brow was previously a contracted assessor in Benzonia Township, and state records show while there she had several tax tribunal cases.

In one, Brow assessed a vacant lot in a condo development at $100,000, a tax tribunal judge ruled the assessment should have been $13,500 and awarded the property owner attorney fees.

In another, township resident William Woodward said his home went from an assessed value of about $450,000 to $1.5 million in one year, he represented himself at the tax tribunal and prevailed.

“There were a number of aggressive assessment issues in Benzonia Township then,” Woodward said.

Responses to Rider’s Frankfort-related FOIA requests, which Rider shared with the Record-Eagle, revealed errors on Rider’s property records, including listing the wrong last name.

Rider also received a copy of an email from Brow to a Frankfort official, sent after Rider’s board of review appeal, asking about the property’s buildability.

“I really don’t believe that you can build on this parcel,” Josh Mills, city superintendent, responded.

“The parcel is in a Zone A Floodplain,” Mills said. “Also the parcel is listed as a wetland per the National Wetland Inventory used by EGLE. I would deny a land use permit unless they secured all necessary permits from EGLE.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency produces Flood Insurance Rate Maps, the most common identifiers in Michigan are gradients of Zone A to Zone D, Zone V and Zone X.

Zone A denotes property in a flood-prone region, the maps show, and Rider’s property is Zone A-V, the highest flood risk classification.

A call to dispatch

On December 12, 2023, Frankfort’s board of review held another regular meeting, Rider said she attended and noticed something she thought was unusual — a sheriff’s deputy stationed inside the room.

Records show Brow called a dispatcher just as the meeting was about to begin, expressing concern a woman who’d previously been a nuisance was planning to be there.

“Kind of held the board captive, not with a weapon or anything … so, I don’t think she’s violent, she just is a nuisance,” Brow told the dispatcher.

“It will be a quick meeting as long as she doesn’t drag it out,” Brow continued. “If we can hurry up and get out of here as close to 4 p.m. as possible it may be a moot point, but I figured I better be pre-emptive.”

In the audio of this call, provided in response to a FOIA request, the name of the woman Brow is complaining about is redacted, though Brow on Wednesday said she was calling about Rider.

Brow, contracted as Frankfort’s assessor since 2017, said she made the call after hearing from board of review members that Rider made them uncomfortable.

Rider said she did not cause a disturbance or act inappropriately and believes she’s been targeted because, in her words, she was “fighting city hall.”

Another FOIA

Rider said she went back to city offices a few days later and asked to see five years’ worth of board of review meeting minutes.

The answer — that she’d have to file another FOIA request — didn’t sit well.

“That’s not how it’s supposed to work,” Rider said. “Those minutes are public records and they’re supposed to be there, available, for anyone to read whenever they ask for them.”

Rider said she agreed to file the request; days later she received a response from Frankfort attorney Ross Hammersley.

Hammersley said Wednesday that board of review minutes are public records; very low frequency of requests to see them may be why they aren’t archived on the city’s website the way minutes for other boards, commissions, councils and committees are.

“The city is trying to do everything it can to make records available,” Hammersley said.

Rider said she was hoping to learn how long each member had served on the board of review and whether they’d been properly trained.

That information was not included in the meeting minutes, Rider said, but she doesn’t regret looking for it.

“I’m a champion of the OMA,” Rider said of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. “And I’m a big supporter of FOIA. People have a right to know what their government is up to.”

Rider shared complaints about the entire appeal experience with Frankfort Mayor JoAnn Holwerda, and a letter dated Jan. 22 from Holwerda to Sheriff Kyle Rosa appears to address at least one of them.

“First, thank you for having an officer respond, and second, I want to apologize for having to dispatch an officer for this incident,” Holwerda said. “I have spoken to the assessor and asked that in the future not to contact your office and call myself instead.”

On Thursday, Rider had her day in tax court.

Callam, on Rider’s behalf, said an appeal to the state should not have been necessary and asked an administrative law judge to negate the assessment increases and order the City of Frankfort to pay Rider’s attorney fees.

“These numbers and concepts are basically being pulled out of thin air, and have no application to the situation on the ground on the two lots at issue,” Callum told the judge.

Brow, in her materials submitted to the judge, used as some of her comparable property sales, vacant lots on Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan, which the judge asked her about.

“It shows non-access to the big water still has value,” Brow said.

A written decision is expected sometime in the next several weeks.

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