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4 Prob. & Prop. 13 (1990)
Goodbye to the Welcome Stranger Rule

handle is hein.journals/probpro4 and id is 285 raw text is: Goodbye to the
Welcome Stranger Rule

he welcome stranger property
tax assessment policy of West
Virginia's Webster County found a
cool reception in the U.S. Supreme
Court. The high Court held, in a
unanimous opinion by Chief Justice
Rehnquist, that the assessment of a
coal mining property in the county
ran afoul of the fourteenth amend-
ment's equal protection clause.
Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. County
Comm'n of Webster County, West
Virginia, 109 S. Ct. 633 (1989). In so
ruling, however, the Court may have
opened the door to examination of
issues broader than the assessment
practices of a single county in West
Virginia. The holding may even cast
doubt on the validity of California's
restrictions on reassessments under
Proposition 13.
The assessment in question was
based on current market value, as
determined by the county assessor
based on the assessed property's
most recent selling price. Similar
properties in the county were, howev-
er, assessed at a small fraction of their
current market value.
Thus the reference to this policy as
the welcome stranger rule: the new
property owner is always welcome
because he or she bears a dispropor-
tionate share of the tax burden. In so
holding, the Court reaffirmed a long-
standing but recently dormant princi-
ple, quoting from Sunday Lake Iron Co.
v. Wakefield, 247 U.S. 350 (1918):
IlIntentional systematic undervalua-
tion by state officials of other taxable
property in the same class contra-
venes the constitutional right of one
taxed upon the full value of his prop-
erty. See Cumberland Coal Co. v. Board

By Michael Handler
of Revision of Tax Assessments, 284 U.S.
23, 52 S. Ct. 48 (1931); Sioux City
Bridge Co. v. Dakota County, 260 U.S.
441, 43 S. Ct. 190 (1923). The Court
thus reaffirmed that a
victim of discrimina-
tory assessment prac-
tice has a claim for     Althc
relief based on the
federal equal protec-
tion clause.
Facts of the Case      do   if
In Allegheny          cases
Pittsburgh, the tax-
payer purchased its       next
property in 1974 for
$24 million. Under
the local practice of
assessing at 50% of
market value, the           istf
county set the assess-
ment at $12 million.
For other similar
properties, however,
the Court found that
the county assessor had assessed each
property at 50% of the selling price of
the property based on the property's
most recent arms' length sale and had
made only minor revisions in the
assessments since those sales.
Allegheny Pittsburgh's property was
assessed at roughly 8 to 35 times
more than comparable neighboring
properties.
The Supreme Court of Appeals of
West Virginia denied relief, finding
that the record did not support the
trial court's ruling that the actions of
the assessor and Board of Review
constituted intentional and systematic
discrimination. 360 S.E.2d 560 (W.Va.

1987). The court also held that the
proper remedy of the petitioner was
to seek to have the assessment of
other taxpayers raised to market

value.
According to the Court in Alle-
gheny Pittsburgh, this approach in
assessing resulted in gross dispari-
ties in the assessed value of generally
comparable property, and denied the
petitioners the equal protection of the
laws guaranteed to them by the
Fourteenth Amendment.
It is unquestionable that the prac-
tice of the county assessor evidenced
in Allegheny Pittsburgh produced dis-
parate results. Gross discrepancies
resulted because, although the same
percentage of value was used in each
case, the value to which the percent-
age was applied differed, depending

September/October

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