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Skyline Swannanoa Inc. v. Nelson County

October 13, 1947


Error to a judgment of the Circuit Court of Nelson county. Hon. Edward Meeks, judge presiding.

Present, Hudgins,*fn* C.J., and Gregory, Eggleston and Buchanan, JJ.


HUDGINS, J., delivered the opinion of the court.

Skyline Swannanoa, Inc., alleged, in its petition against Nelson county, that the assessment of its real estate and improvements thereon was more than the fair market value thereof; and that the assessment was not uniform in its application in that it was not in proportion to the assessed value of other real estate with improvements in the county. The prayer of the petition was that the assessment

be corrected and that there be a refund of the excess taxes paid to the county for the year 1944. After a full hearing, the trial court entered an order denying the prayer of the petition and dismissed the case. From that order this writ of error was awarded.

The tract of land involved was a part of a larger tract formerly owned by Major James H. Dooley and known as "Swannanoa." It lies astride the Blue Ridge Mountains at Rockfish Gap just west of Afton. On this tract Major Dooley built, and occupied until his death in 1922, a large mansion house of Georgian and Italian marble. The original cost of this building is said to have exceeded a million dollars. Entrance to the estate is through a stone archway built on the southern side of Route 250 at Rockfish Gap. A macadam road extends from this archway to the mansion, a distance of one and three-tenths miles. In addition, Major Dooley constructed a commodious stone stable, later used as a garage, a small stone dwelling occupied by the caretaker and a storage room. A beautiful lawn and gardens were laid out and maintained.

After Mrs. Dooley's death in 1926, Mr. Oliver J. Sands organized Swannanoa Estates, Inc., and purchased the property for use as a country club. Various parts of the estate were subdivided into residential sites. Many were sold. The mansion house was used as a club house. Additional tracts of land were purchased and an extensive golf course was laid out. The estate was beautiful and was kept in excellent condition. The ambitious country club program was never a financial success. The company failed and its assets were sold in a chancery suit. The greater part of the land, including the golf course, was sold to different parties. Approximately 700 acres of land, including the mansion house and the other three buildings, were purchased by the Dooley heirs at a commissioner's sale for $179,700. The Dooley heirs sold their interest to the Swannanoa Development Corporation, which paid $50,000 in cash and mortgaged the property for the unpaid balance of $125,000. This company failed and the real estate was returned delinquent

for the non-payment of taxes for the years 1936 to 1941, inclusive. These taxes, amounting to $6,315.42, were paid in 1943 by the mortgagees. These mortgagees organized a new company known as the Valley Corporation, to whom the property was sold at public auction on May 20, 1944, for $75,000. In October of the same year the identical property, described as containing 629.14 acres, was sold by the Valley Corporation to the petitioner for $60,100.

546.54 acres of this land lie in Augusta county. This acreage was assessed at $2,900 and the improvements thereon at $2,400, making a total of $5,300. No relief is sought as to this assessment. The remaining acreage, 163.10 acres, lies in Nelson county and is assessed at $10 an acre, or $1,630, and the buildings and improvements thereon are assessed at $75,000, making a total of $76,630. The total assessment for the one tract in the two counties is $81,930, or $21,830 more than the petitioner paid for it. The petitioner raises no objection to the valuation placed upon the land itself. Its attack is concentrated upon the valuation placed upon the improvements in Nelson county.

[1] Sections 168 and 169 of the Constitution of Virginia provide that all real estate and tangible personal property shall be assessed at its fair market value and that all taxes shall be uniform upon the same class of subjects within the territorial limits of the authority levying the taxes. The two sections must be construed together. The dominant purpose of these provisions is to distribute the burden of taxation, so far as is practical, evenly and equitably. If it is impractical or impossible to enforce both the standard of true value and the standard of uniformity and equality, the latter provision is to be preferred as the just and ultimate end to be attained. Norfolk v. Snyder, 161 Va. 288, 170 S.E. 721; Lehigh Portland Cement Co. v. Commonwealth, 146 Va. 146, 135 S.E. 669; Sioux City Bridge Co. v. Dakota County, 260 U.S. 441, 43 S. Ct. 190, 67 L. Ed. 340, 28 A.L.R. 979.

These two basic principles are set forth in ...

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