Judge orders city of Columbus to pay $160,000 in attorney, court fees in Green Island property dispute

A Superior Court judge has ordered the Columbus Board of Tax Assessors to pay almost $160,000 in attorney fees and litigation costs to a homeowner who appealed his property tax assessment.

Judge William Rumer cut the amount that Gunby Garrard’s attorneys sought, from $190,932 to $159,814, about $25,000 of which was litigation costs.Columbus City Attorney Clifton Fay said his office will discuss with the Board of Tax Assessors whether they want to appeal the ruling. If not, Fay said, then the matter would go before Columbus Council for payment to be approved.

Fay said the city paid attorney Randy Lomax “about $24,000” to handle the assessors’ appeal, making the total legal price tag of the appeal close to $185,000.

The city had argued that the attorney fees were excessive for a three-day trial. Rumer wrote in his order that there was more to the case than just the trial.

“This has been a long and honorable fight,” Rumer wrote. “The court respectfully disagrees with the city that this was just a three-day trial. Indeed, it went to the very nub of how the city evaluates property, and it took some good lawyering to prove the case.”

Garrard’s attorney, Greg Ellington of Hatcher, Stubbs, declined to comment.

The Garrard case had been ongoing for almost five years.

The house at 6551 Green Island Drive was built in 1921 and is currently more than 9,000 square feet.

Gunby Garrard bought the home in 2006 for $800,000 from his parents, Gardiner W. Garrard Jr. and Lenora J. Garrard. The sales price was not used in the assessment because it was a family sale and may not have reflected the true value of the home.

The first assessment after the purchase was issued in 2007 when the home and property were valued at $2.04 million by the assessor’s office. After Gunby Garrard purchased the home, he created a condominium association on the property that reduced the house footprint to two acres.

After a review and some legal wrangling, the house and the two acres was assessed at $1.925 million by the Board of Tax Assessors in August 2011. Garrard appealed that assessment to the Board of Equalization, and the Board of Tax Assessors stood by its assessment, based on comparable property transactions.

The Board of Tax Assessors chose to take the case to Superior Court after the Board of Equalization lowered the assessed value.

The evidence showed the “sales comparison approach” was the only valuation used by the tax office to determine fair market value, the judge’s ruling stated.

“The evidence adduced at trial established that fair market value of residential real estate in the upper end of the Columbus housing market declined significantly between Jan. 1, 2007 and Jan. 1, 2009,” Rumer wrote.