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White Horse Partners LLLP v. Monroe County Board of Assessors

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

February 11, 2019

WHITE HORSE PARTNERS LLLP et al.
v.
MONROE COUNTY BOARD OF ASSESSORS.

          DILLARD, C. J., DOYLE, P. J., and MERCIER, J.

          Dillard, Chief Judge.

         In this property-tax appeal, White Horse Partners LLLP and Loblolly Investments LLLP ("Appellants") challenge an adverse decision from the Monroe County Board of Equalization ("the Board"). Prior to a jury trial in an appeal of the Board's tax assessment of their property, Appellants filed motions in limine as to the Board's testimony and evidence on the value of standing timber, and the trial court denied those motions. A jury then returned a verdict upholding the Board's assessment of Appellants' property. Appellants now argue that the trial court erred in failing to exclude (1) the expert testimony proffered by the Board regarding estimates of timber value and (2) inadmissible hearsay testimony of out-of-court appraisers. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

         The record shows that Appellants own a 250-acre tract of timberland in Monroe County, the use of which has, for decades, been continuously devoted to the commercial production of timber. In 2008, as part of a countywide revaluation of rural properties, the Board increased the property tax fair market value for Appellants' land from the 2007 rate of $309, 175 to a new rate of $834, 900, which was later reduced to $626, 200 after an appeal.[1] Appellants testified that their line-item expenses for property taxes rose to $25.87 per acre, and they subsequently appealed the value to the superior court.[2]

         Due to the scale of the project and level of expertise required, the Board's 2008 revaluation of rural properties was conducted by a third-party appraisal firm. According to the president of that firm, a mass appraisal of all agricultural tracts in the County was conducted by extrapolating from twenty-three comparable sales. Prior to using a comparable sale in the study, the firm would attempt to remove the value of standing timber from the sale price in order to reach the "bare land value." Thus, on the spreadsheet compiled by the firm president, the estimated value of standing timber was the difference between the comparable properties' sale price and their adjusted sale price.

         Prior to trial, Appellants filed motions in limine to exclude the firm president's testimony and evidence as to estimates of timber value on the basis that his estimates were too speculative. And after hearing argument on the motions, the trial court denied them. Then, at trial, the court also permitted the Board to present, over objection, rebuttal testimony on the value of timberland that was based upon a report the court did not admit into evidence but about which it permitted the Board's witness to testify. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict upholding the Board's 2008 assessment of the Appellants' property, and the trial court then denied Appellants' motion for new trial. This appeal follows, in which the Appellants challenge the trial court's denial of their motions in limine and the admission of certain evidence.

         As a general rule, admission of evidence is "a matter resting within the sound discretion of the trial court, and appellate courts will not disturb the exercise of that discretion absent evidence of its abuse."[3] With this guiding principle in mind, we turn now to Appellants' enumerations of error.

         1. First, Appellants argue that the trial court erred in failing to exclude the estimates of timber value proffered by the Board's expert when they were too speculative. More specifically, Appellants argue that the trial court erred in admitting the testimony of the firm president as an expert. We disagree.

         As an initial matter, we note that Appellants refer to and rely upon OCGA § 24-9-67.1, a statute that was repealed by the enactment of our new Evidence Code (which became effective January 1, 2013, and which applies in this case because it was tried after that date).[4] Georgia's expert-witness requirements are now codified in OCGA § 24-7-702. We take this opportunity, yet again, to remind our trial courts and lawyers of the importance of relying upon the new Evidence Code, as well as its accompanying case law, in addressing evidentiary issues arising after the new code's effective date.[5]

To that end, OCGA § 24-7-702 (b) provides as follows:
If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if:
(1)The testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data;
(2)The testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(3)The witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case which have been or will be admitted into ...

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