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Nemacolin assessment unchanged

| Thursday, Oct. 17, 2002

UNIONTOWN - A Fayette County assessment appeals board heard three separate appeals with thousands of dollars in tax revenue at stake Wednesday in the county's ongoing $3 million reassessment.

The board, one of five hurrying to complete more than 10,000 appeals before the Oct. 31 deadline, heard appeals on The Uniontown Hospital, Bruderhof Communities of Pennsylvania Inc. and the highest-valued property in the county: Joseph Hardy Sr.'s Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in Wharton Township.

It made no changes to the Nemacolin property, along with 16 lesser properties owned by Hardy's NWL Corp., all near Farmington.

The board also chose to leave unchanged the Bruderhof's assessment, but exempted the main Uniontown Hospital building from taxation.

County commissioners chose to begin a reassessment in 2000 after solicitors concluded the 1958 system was too badly fractured to survive legal challenge.

The old system was supposed to estimate values at 35 percent of what it would have cost to buy the land and structure in 1958. But the old system was really an amalgam of three systems that were never approved publicly, making it all unlikely to survive legal challenge.

The new system, when completed later this year for tax year 2003, will estimate properties' sale prices, as in the example of Nemacolin.

Nemacolin's primary 778-acre tract is valued at $65 million.

In addition to a large hotel, spa and numerous shops, it has a PGA golf course along with another, older course, a grass-strip airport, several large lakes and a ski area.

Hardy did not attend the hearing. His New Jersey attorney, Gregory Lotz, offered no testimony, and only placed into evidence a Hardy-backed appraisal for $23 million.

Lotz said the appeal was simply to preserve Hardy's rights to appeal the assessment along with an older appeal now pending in Fayette County Common Pleas Court.

Uniontown Area School District Solicitor Donald Walsh Jr. sat with Lotz at the appellant's table, unlike in other hearings he attended, and read law that buttressed Hardy's position to the board.

Hardy recently donated $100,000 to the district, and has reached a negotiated assessed value of $38 million with the district, according to a published report.

"How could you do that, being that is yet to come before this board?" asked board Chairman Jim Killinger.

Lotz and Walsh were noncommittal.

Afterward, Killinger said what he thought of their answer.

"I didn't get one," he said.

The other 16 properties, totaling assessments of approximately $3 million, were also left unchanged.

The board also refused to change the assessments of the Bruderhof commune properties, valued at more than $5 million. On religious grounds, the commune had asked for a blanket exemption of its living quarters from taxation.

The two properties, next to Nemacolin, are home to 700 people who sell all possessions upon joining and take vows of poverty.

Bruderhof of Pennsylvania Vice President Matthew Doman said Bruderhof did not contest assessments of its factory for making children's toys or farm and timber tracts nearby.

Doman compared his community's dormitory homes with those of a convent. There are two in Fayette County that aren't taxed.

"The Bruderhof community mirrors the activities going on at these other sites," he said.

The board refused to exempt the properties, noting that the community's dining hall, as well as its main place of worship and kindergarten through ninth-grade school, were exempted from taxation.

While the board made no changes in these cases, it gave a blanket exemption to one of two buildings owned by The Uniontown Hospital.

The hospital had appealed a $10 million, 50 percent assessment, which Jim Hercik, chief county assessor, said was the result of the county having "questions" about lease arrangements within the hospital.

Hospital administrators testified that there were only two small leases within the hospital: a gift shop and an office space for a staff physical therapist to see the occasional private patient.

"It's a minimal square footage," Killinger said, explaining the board's decision.

The board did, however, vote to keep taxation unchanged on the hospital's Medical Arts Building, valued at $700,000.

The estimated 2003 taxes for these properties were not available.

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