Landowners in CAUV lawsuit want to keep case in Ashtabula

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gavel and scales of justice
(Farm and Dairy file photo)

ASHTABULA, Ohio — A group of landowners and their legal counsel will ask a common pleas judge not to dismiss their case against Ohio’s tax commissioner and governor, during a hearing Jan. 15 in Ashtabula County.

Landowner Bruce Vance, of Jefferson, Ohio, and two other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against Tax Commissioner Joseph Testa, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, in June 2015, over concerns that Current Agricultural Use Values were miscalculated, and cost landowners billions of dollars.

Issue in question

The basic argument is that the state-determined CAUV values are based on crop commodities — like corn, soybeans and wheat — and neglect to take into consideration acres that grow other crops — such as grapes, woodlands or pastureland, or are not suited to grow crops.

At least a half-dozen additional plaintiffs have joined the case, some who have seen two- and three-fold increases in their CAUV taxes. The group is hoping for more plaintiffs as they seek class action status.

The CAUV program was established in 1975 as a means of taxing farmland on its agricultural use value and not its full market value. The calculation drew scrutiny following an update in 2014, that resulted in a 200-300 percent increase for some landowners.

Implementing the law

Kevin Roberts, attorney for the landowners, said the group is not arguing to change Ohio’s CAUV rule — only how it is implemented.

“The rule is fine,” Roberts said. “The tax commissioner is failing to abide by the strict mandates of the rule.”

Roberts said the state basically used the recent rise in commodity prices as an excuse for changing other parts.

Kate Hanson, public information officer for the Ohio Attorney General, said she couldn’t comment on the case because it’s active litigation.

Want it dismissed

But court documents show the state has asked for the case to be dismissed.

“Under well-settled law, the state is immune from suit, unless the General Assembly has expressly waived the state’s immunity by statute,” according to the state’s motion to dismiss.

Attorneys for the state also argue that a court of common pleas, which is where this case has been filed, cannot suspend or stay an order of the tax commissioner, because of the state’s sovereignty over such matters.

If the case is not dismissed, state attorneys ask that it at least be transferred to Franklin County, where state offices are located, and where the alleged miscalculations were made.

Roberts said the state wants “home territory” to decide the case. He would rather see it decided in farm country — where the farmers live and are being affected.

Amended complaint

The landowners are also hoping the court will grant them a second amended complaint, which would drop the governor as a defendant, drop the injunction, and presumably make the case more likely to stay in county court.

Co-attorney Ben Calkins said the plaintiffs have also decided to focus on “equitable relief” for damages. If they were seeking “legal relief,” the case would be more likely to end up in a Columbus court.

Other efforts

Other efforts are also underway to change CAUV.

A different group of landowners has filed an administrative appeal asking the Ohio Board of Tax Appeals to rule that the tax department did not allow sufficient deductions for woodland values, and to require the higher deductions to be used in the future.

Separately, the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation has worked with landowners and state officials through a third approach — to negotiate and amend the CAUV calculation so that it’s more closely tied to farm values.

The Farm Bureau’s effort resulted in an initial round of acceptance by the tax commissioner, and the introduction of new legislation late in 2015, calling for additional amendments.

Farm Bureau is not involved with either legal action, and noted that both cases have uncertain outcomes that could take years to resolve.

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