Attorney expects more lawsuits to be filed about property appraisals following pandemic

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — 9 Investigates dozens of pending lawsuits against the Orange County Property Appraiser, accusing the current and former administration of inaccurately assessing property values of places like city-run offices, new developments and apartment complexes, even Publix stores, resulting in what they say are excessively high tax bills.

An attorney representing many of those property owners believes the COVID-19 pandemic may result in even more of those claims being brought forward.

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There was a major lawsuit that led to a settlement for millions to be paid back to Disney last year, after the company filed suit following its 2015 assessments. Since that year, many other companies have followed with their own claims.

As we approach spring break, crowds are coming back to the Orlando International Airport, but COVID-19 crushed business, with traffic down more than 57% in 2020. Yet off-site, away from the terminals, the property appraiser determined the airport’s central office saw a big jump in market value from January 2020 to January 2021, leading to a taxable value that’s now being challenged in court.

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“Valuing property is really hard, and when you throw a global pandemic that destroys what we know about property valuation and real estate,” said attorney Brendan Lynch, shareholder with Lowndes. He couldn’t talk about that specific case, but he is the attorney who filed the suit against the Property Appraiser and Tax Collectors’ offices, challenging the assessment on behalf of the off-site airport property. He’s also filed dozens of nearly identical claims on behalf of property owners like 55 West downtown, Union West apartments at Creative Village, even Publix stores, all claiming the “assessment done by the Property Appraiser exceeds the just and fair market value.” They also claim the office has “unlawfully, systematically, and intentionally substituted assessment policies instead of following state law.”

“I think it gives the opportunity for the property owner and the office to share their details,” Property Appraiser Amy Mercado said about the court challenges. “The idea that this was occurring is not necessarily an issue, but the volume may have been more than before.”

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The volume could increase again, as we see market values soaring in Central Florida, despite our economy taking a major hit during the peak of the pandemic. That could impact our tax base, if the court system determines too much has been collected in property taxes and more refunds have to be issued.

“I don’t have any clients trying not to pay taxes, they’re trying to figure out a valuation they think their property is worth,” Lynch said.

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Mercado says her office welcomes the opportunity for discussion, noting at the center of all these assessments are real people working within a range, and that some properties may have been undervalued in the past.

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Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.