Columbia County commissioners Tuesday have a prickly decision.
Approve a rezoning request and hand the well-connected owners a huge tax break next year? Or postpone a decision just two weeks so the property value isn't affected?
The 22-acre Mullins Crossing Phase 2 has been zoned commercial since 2006, when the owners hoped to expand the Mullins Crossing shopping center.
The plans lost steam when its expected anchor pulled out, and in June attorneys for the Mullins family asked to rezone it back to residential. The agenda for the planning and zoning board meeting said the request was to lower the taxes on the land: as residential property its tax bill in 2005 was $6,200; as commercial land, the tax bill is $42,500.
The owners quickly denied the issue was about tax relief, but instead was to fix an error; one of the owners hadn't signed the original rezoning request, as the law requires.
County attorney Doug Batchelor says because of that error the owners could demand not only the rezoning - even though it's their error - but also seek a refund for the difference in taxes during the entire period.
Thus, commissioners started the rezoning themselves with the intention of then re-rezoning it back to commercial. The planning and zoning board signed off to start the process, and commissioners are expected to vote on the proposal Tuesday.
Even though the property owners have said their intention isn't to get a tax break, that likely would be the result if commissioners approve the rezoning Tuesday. Tax appraisals are based on the property's zoning as of the first of the year, and even if commissioners rezoned the land to commercial right away, it would be on the 2011 tax books as residential - with a fraction of the tax bill.
But here's what commissioners could do. While the law requires them to consider the matter Tuesday, it doesn't force them to vote.
If commissioners tabled the issue until January, they could rezone the land without affecting the 2011 tax bill. They could then initiate the process of zoning it back to commercial, and everything would be fixed.
The land owners said they aren't seeking a tax break. Commissioners should take them at their word.
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