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Wednesday, March 18, 2009 07:25 am

Nice bridge, but would you want to live there?

Tax increase depends on definition of “habitable”

Developer David Barnett is fighting a tax increase that’s due to construction of this “habitable” bridge.

As bridges go, this one is deluxe. It’s built on a vintage single-span construct donated by the township of Island Grove, and topped with a newly-made pitched roof that, once completed, will feature two cupolas, each lit by a wrought-iron chandelier. Situated on the drive to the site of a future bed-and-breakfast, it’s designed to provide a grand entrance for a bride in a horse-drawn carriage, or maybe just a loving couple on a romantic getaway.

Still, no matter how fancy this bridge may be, even the bridge-builder himself, David Barnett, doesn’t know of anyone who would want to live in it. Sangamon County, however, has quadrupled the property taxes on the otherwise-vacant parcel of land surrounding the bridge, based on the reasoning that the covered bridge is a “habitable structure.”

Barnett filed an appeal with the Sangamon County Board of Review, but the board declined to overrule the tax assessor’s decision.

“His argument is a legal position argument,” says Joe Lindley, clerk of the board of review. “The board’s determination was that the best way to address the argument was to send it forward to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board, which has hearing officers who are attorneys and very well-versed in the definitions and legalities of property tax code.”

The definition in question, Lindley says, is the word “habitable.”

“I thought the term ‘habitable structure’ was pretty self-explanatory,” Barnett says.

Lindley disagrees: “I’m not an attorney, but he built a bridge, which is called a habitable structure to the property, and that changed the assessment of the land,” he says.

According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the word habitable means “fit to be lived in.” Asked whether he or anyone he knows would like to live in Barnett’s bridge, Lindley declined to answer. “I don’t know that we have a comment on that,” he says.

The tax increase comes from Barnett’s loss of the exemption for developers. A former farmer, Barnett used to lease this 70-acre plot of land near Berlin, about 10 miles west of Springfield. When the landowner died, Barnett bought the land, and decided to grow homes on it instead of corn and soybeans. In 1994, he subdivided the property into 27 lots, most of which sold over the next six years.

Barnett and his wife Maryann reserved a 13.5-acre lot to build a bed-and-breakfast, envisioning a 10,000-square-foot home with living quarters for themselves plus four guest suites — the kind of place couples might want to rent out for weddings. Though construction of the B&B itself is approximately five years away, Barnett has already built the bridge, a lighted gateway to the drive, and a gazebo on the lake as part of the project.

As developer, he gets a tax exemption on this property until he builds a habitable structure. In 2007, the county assessed the lot value at $10,503, with taxes of $3,501. This year, the county reclassified the property from a “subdivision lot” to “improved urban residential,” valued at $40,374, with taxes of $13,458.

After losing his appeal to the county review board, Barnett called the Illinois Department of Revenue seeking clarification on the word “habitable.” He received a letter from Fred Spittler, manager of the department’s office of appraisals, who wrote: “I cannot determine that a ‘covered bridge or roofed bridge’ could be construed as ‘a habitable structure.’ ” Spittler advised Barnett to go ahead and pay the $13,458 tax “under protest” while filing an objection in court.

Lindley says that if Barnett wins his appeal at the state level, the county will issue the appropriate refund.

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