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Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011 06:05 am

Water under the bridge

County reverses ruling that bridge is “habitable”

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David Barnett with his controversial bridge.
PHOTO BY JOSEPH COPLEY

A bridge, by any other name, is still a bridge. Nowhere does a definition of the word offer up the structure as a house or a liveable shelter. But after two years of bickering with bureaucracy, New Berlin developer David Barnett no longer has to pay taxes to the county on his bridge as though it served that purpose.

Barnett and his wife, Maryan, moved to New Berlin in 1994 and bought more than 70 acres of land. He subdivided the property into 27 lots, one of which he and his wife kept, with plans to build a bed and breakfast. But as the economy went sour, plans for the business wavered. Barnett built the frames and roof for an existing bridge donated by a local township, as well as a gazebo, to enhance the vacant property.

Although he says the craftsmanship in the roof and the trusses he built resemble a 17th century Russian church, the structure couldn’t hold parishioners or house a family, so he wonders how someone could live in it and how others could think it was “habitable.”

“Does it have plumbing, windows? Can it be heated? No,” Barnett says.

The county thought otherwise, if only for tax purposes.

The county originally valued the 13.5 acres at $10,503 with taxes set at $285 before he acquired the bridge. Once Barnett had moved the bridge to the property and built a roof, he and his wife saw the property taxes jump to $985, a triple jump on his tax bill.

Barnett appealed to the Illinois Board of Property Tax Appeals after being denied his developer’s exemption, a tax incentive. The incentive keeps a developer like Barnett from having to pay higher property taxes while he has property on the market.

The board notified Barnett’s attorney in August 2010 that the county was wrong to treat the bridge as if it were a shelter for tax purposes, but Barnett had not seen any change in his tax bill that matched their conclusion. That is until the Sangamon County Board of Review ruled in his favor at a Feb. 18 hearing.

The Board of Review ruled that the bridge, previously taxed as a “habitable” structure by Sangamon County, will remain taxed, but at a lower rate.

“Even a concrete pad is an improvement for tax purposes,” said John Hawkins, a board of review member.

The hearing decision satisfied Barnett’s frustration with the county but leaves him questioning the last two years of fighting for what he sees as reasonable and fair.

Barnett says he followed the rules before building the roof and bought a building permit. He didn’t know it would eventually cost him nearly $1,500 in hearing and attorney fees. After months of grappling with the appeal to his property tax increase, Barnett can expect around $10 in property tax instead of nearly $1,000 on the bridge he built, and a reinstated tax exemption, one of the most important assets in a developer’s toolbox.

The rest is water under the bridge for Barnett. “Given what’s happened in the past, it’s a surprise,” Barnett says. “I’m very happy…we’re headed in the right direction.”

A stream runs beneath Barnett’s bridge, with a gazebo nearby. He still hopes to sell the 13.5-acre property, with one likely stipulation: The buyer cannot live in the bridge because, as the county revealed, it’s uninhabitable.

Contact Holly Dillemuth at hdillemuth@illinoistimes.com.

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