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Donald Stehly and v. Davison County

August 24, 2011

DONALD STEHLY AND GENE STEHLY,
PLAINTIFFS AND APPELLANTS,
v.
DAVISON COUNTY, A GOVERNMENTAL SUBDIVISION OF THE STATE OF SOUTH DAKOTA, KATHY GOETSCH, DAVISON COUNTY ASSESSOR, DAVID WEITALA, RICHARD ZIEGLER, JERRY FISCHER, GERALD WEISS AND JOHN CLAGGETT, DAVISON COUNTY COMMISSIONERS,
DEFENDANTS AND APPELLEES.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FIRST JUDICIAL CIRCUIT DAVISON COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA HONORABLE SEAN M. O'BRIEN Judge

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Severson, Justice

CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON APRIL 25, 2011

[¶1.] In 2007, Davison County adopted a county-wide plan to reassess agricultural structures. The County reassessed agricultural structures in four of its twelve townships that year. The new valuations in the four reassessed townships were generally higher than the existing valuations in the County's eight other townships. Donald and Gene Stehly, who own agricultural structures in the four reassessed townships, initiated this declaratory judgment action, alleging that the plan to reassess four townships each year created an unconstitutional lack of uniform taxation within the County. The trial court concluded that the Stehlys' claim failed because they did not establish lack of uniformity within a single taxing district. We affirm.

Background

[¶2.] In 2007, Kathy Goetz, the Davison County Director of Equalization, discovered discrepancies in the County's assessments of agricultural structures. While some individuals were paying taxes on agricultural structures that no longer existed, others were not paying taxes on newly-constructed structures. On Goetz's recommendation, the County developed a plan to reassess all agricultural structures in the County over a three-year period.*fn1 Beginning in 2007, agricultural structures in four of the County's twelve townships were to be reassessed each year for the next three years to complete reassessment of the entire county. The reassessments were to be placed on the assessment rolls as they were ascertained.

[¶3.] The County began the reassessment process in the four townships with the greatest number of agricultural structures: the Blendon, Badger, Baker, and Tobin townships. Agricultural structures in the County's other eight townships were not reassessed in 2007; they were to be reassessed in either 2008 or 2009. Unless new agricultural structures were constructed or existing structures changed in use or condition, the assessments in those eight townships remained unchanged. The reassessed valuations were placed on the 2008 assessment roll for taxes payable in 2009.

[¶4.] The new valuations in the four reassessed townships were generally higher than the existing valuations in the County's other eight townships. For example, a grain bin with ventilated floors in one of the four reassessed townships was valued at $1.90 per bushel of storage after reassessment, but the valuation for a similar facility in one of the County's other eight townships remained at $1.05 per bushel. The reassessment created a 80.9% increase in valuation. Similarly, a grain bin without ventilated floors in one of the four reassessed townships was valued at $1.35 per bushel of storage after reassessment, but the valuation for a similar facility in one of the County's other eight townships remained at $0.85 per bushel. This change caused a 58.8% increase. Finally, the new valuation for pole buildings in the four reassessed townships was approximately 25% higher after reassessment than for similar facilities in the County's other eight townships. Evidence presented at trial established that the new valuations were the full and true value of agricultural structures in the four reassessed townships.

[¶5.] The Stehlys own agricultural structures in the Badger Township, which was reassessed in 2007. While Donald Stehly's taxes on his agricultural structures before the reassessment totaled $1,320.00, his taxes after the reassessment totaled $2,139.38. Thus, the reassessment of Donald Stehly's agricultural structures resulted in an $819.38 tax increase for the 2009 tax year. No evidence was presented at trial concerning the tax increase Gene Stehly or other individuals who owned agricultural structures in the four reassessed townships incurred due to the reassessment.

[¶6.] In August 2008, the Stehlys initiated this declaratory judgment action against the County, alleging that the plan to reassess four townships each year created an unconstitutional lack of uniform taxation within the County. The Stehlys asked the trial court to issue a writ of mandamus ordering the Davison County Assessor to "implement, prepare, and present to the Davison County Commissioners for their approval an assessment roll" that was constitutional. After a court trial, the trial court concluded that the Stehlys' claim failed because they did not establish lack of uniformity within a single taxing district. The Stehlys appeal.

Standard of Review

[¶7.] An appeal asserting a violation of a constitutional provision is a question of law reviewed under the de novo standard of review. W. Two Rivers Ranch v. Pennington Cnty. , 2002 S.D. 107, ¶ 8, 650 N.W.2d 825, 827 (per curiam) (citing Jackson v. Weber , 2001 S.D. 136, ¶ 9, 637 N.W.2d 19, 22). "Under the de novo standard of review, we give no deference to the [trial] court's conclusions of law." In re Guardianship of S.M.N., T.D.N., and T.L.N. , 2010 S.D. 31, ¶ 10, 781 N.W.2d 213, 218 (citing Sherburn v. Patterson Farms, Inc. , 1999 S.D. 47, ¶ 4, 593 N.W.2d 414, 416). But the trial court's findings of fact "are reviewed under the clearly erroneous standard." Id.

¶ 11 (quoting In re Guardianship and Conservatorship of A.L.T. & S.J.T. , 2006 S.D. 28, ¶ 37, 712 N.W.2d 338, 347).

Analysis and Decision

[ΒΆ8.] The Stehlys challenge the County's reassessment plan under article XI, section 2, of the ...


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