Tax bills rock Bolivar with yet another blast
Appraised home and land values soar nearly four years after Ike
Bolivar Peninsula on the Southeast Texas Gulf Coast has bounced back since Hurricane Ike nearly decimated it in September 2008, but the residents and property owners took another blow to the chest – and to their bank accounts – in April when new property tax appraisals started rolling in to homes and offices. The Galveston County Appraisal District said the spike is not all that unusual, but most residents believe it to be extreme at worst and erratic at best.
Much of the peninsula was designated as potential buyout property after Hurricane Ike debris was removed and the area began its return to somewhat normal. Generally speaking, buyouts occur when land is deemed potentially dangerous because of the threat of future natural disasters and rather than rebuild the area again and again, coalitions of state, federal and county agencies suggest properties that might benefit from simply becoming green space with a few rules and regulations. Bolivar has a fair share of those properties, and the county naturally loses that portion of the tax base. Some point to the county’s need to increase tax appraisals to help meet the loss created by buyout lots as the villain in the higher tax appraisals.
Jim and Cindy Srader of Gulf Shores were stunned when they received their notice. Their beach home’s value jumped $106,000 above last year.
“The biggest increase I noted,” said Cindy, “was that our property’s value went from $6,800 to $44,000 in one year.” Cindy said she expected some increase, but certainly not that much in one year.
George Strong of Emerald Beach saw his lot’s value increase from $24,640 to $49,500, and his new home went from $80,450 to $155,920. Despite a total increase of something like $100,000, Strong says he is homesteaded since he lives at the beach permanently. His school taxes are frozen, so he expects his taxes to be charged at the homestead limit of $103,853 to $114,238, or the 10 percent limit per year. At least he’s hoping it works out that way.
Curtis and Michelle Holmes of 979 Cade in Gilchrist love their beach home and enjoy the fishing privileges it includes. Michelle said the house is small by many standards at 768 square feet with no granite countertops or hardwood floors.
“My cabin is a simple one, but we built what we felt we could afford at the time, and we love it,” said Michelle. “It was completed in December 2010 and was placed on the Galveston County tax rolls in January 2011. The appraisal came in at $50,700, for 2011 and when we received this new appraisal, it had jumped to $86,350. Nothing has been added or changed.”
Michelle drove from her home to the tax appraisal office on Tuesday, April 24, and met with staff member Jordan Klein at his office in Texas City. Michelle was told that the lower value in 2011 was based on an incomplete home. She was shown a photograph of her home, and it is exactly the same as the one she brought to share, Michelle says. She then was told that the appraisals were based on home sales in the area.
“There have been no home sales in my area, and only two lots have been sold since Ike,” said Michelle. “I showed Mr. Klein a photograph of our old home that had twice the living area and an attached garage pre-Ike. The value was appraised at $28,000.”
Klein could do nothing to change the Holmes’ appraisal value, so Michelle scheduled an appointment with the review board for May 15, which is the next step in the process. While she was at it, Michelle Holmes did check on the vacant lot they own and found it to have the same value as the one next to it that is the same size, same grass and same dirt as their lot.
Alice L. Hurlbert and William C. Barth Jr. own three lots at 883 Sea Spray. Last year, these three lots were appraised for a total of $11,400. This year, the same lots are appraised for $102,750.
“In addition,” said Hurlbert, “we have an unfinished 938-square-foot house being built on two of those lots. It is valued in its unfinished state at $67,740.”
Joni and John Harding have a local business and make their living on Bolivar. The Hardings also own several pieces of property on Bolivar, and Joni was instrumental in the protest against the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA) in March 2009 following Hurricane Ike.
Joni wrote, “I have one lot that went from $6,330 to $37,960. There have been no improvements to this property, and there are no fair market comparisons as no property has sold in this area since Ike hit.” She also has two additional lots that went from $3,830 to $34,870 with this year’s appraisal. “I did expect the appraisals to go upward some, but certainly not at this pace,” said Joni. “What is this going to do to people that have mortgages and are on a tight budget already? I believe it is going to force people to sell or allow their properties to go into foreclosure and ruin their credit, which is horrible, too.”
Residents and property owners scattered throughout Beaumont, Port Arthur, Mid County, Orange and Houston are taking note of what some of them call erratic tax appraisal increases.
“There appears to be no rhyme or reason as to how the appraisals were reached,” said one property owner. “The vacant lots are the ones that are so randomly appraised, it seems to me.”
It should be noted that many of these vacation and rental homes cannot claim homestead exemption since owners live elsewhere, many scattered throughout Southeast Texas.
Mitch McCullough with the Galveston Central Appraisal District said that his office had heard from more than 100 property owners in just one day about this matter.
“We make it very easy for them to come in and visit with us,” he said. “They can call, make an appointment, and come in to discuss their concerns.”
The silver lining in this cloud is that perhaps present property owners on the Bolivar Peninsula may be holding on to bigger pots of gold at the end of their rainbows than they knew — if they can just pay the taxes on those pots. That little spit of sand may be more valuable than anyone ever thought if land begins to sell for what the county thinks it’s worth now.
Brenda Cannon Henley is an award-winning journalist and a Bolivar Peninsula property owner. After her home was destroyed during Hurricane Ike, she and her husband, Ted, along with neighbor Joni Harding, organized and protested their treatment by the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association and took the action to the agency's Austin doorstep. Eventually, residents and property owners began receiving some compensation from TWIA for losses suffered. She can be reached at (409) 781-8788 or at brendacannonhenley [at] yahoo [dot] com.