More Special Assessments on the Horizon as Cities Contemplate Public Transportation Projects – Rights to Bear in Mind When Ordered to Pay a Special Assessment

12/19/2014 / Bryan Huntington

Business owners along University Avenue in St. Paul have recently received notice of proposed special assessments from the city related to construction of the central corridor light rail (the “Green Line”). A number of these owners have been ordered to pay thousands of dollars, even though they have had to struggle with a multitude of issues and challenges stemming from the light rail project, including limited parking and sidewalk blockages from snow.
Unfortunately, when a business owner has the opportunity to go before a city council and present his or her perspective on the impact of a project, the owner will likely be given only a few minutes. Passage of the assessment may feel like a foregone conclusion – objections are noted as a matter of perfunctory routine. A business owner may justly believe that he or she has not had an adequate opportunity to show the unfairness of an assessment. The owner may then find the litigation process to be the only way to receive a full and fair hearing on an assessment.
As other public transportation projects such as streetcars and bus rapid transit loom on the horizon, it is important that business owners know their constitutional and statutory rights when they are ordered to pay special assessments. Most importantly, each business owner so assessed has the right:

  1. To receive a special benefit to his or her land from the project, and the corollary right to not receive an assessment that is greater than the benefit. When a landowner receives an assessment that is greater than the benefit to the property, the owner’s state and federal constitutional rights are violated.
  2. To a tangible, and not purely speculative, benefit to the property. An assessment may not be made on the basis of speculative benefits that are supposed to materialize far in the future.
  3. To be assessed proportionally with other similar landowners. A city may not make assessments disproportionately on the same class of property. 
  4. To appeal an assessment to state district court. The owner also has the right to receive notice from the city as to the procedures that must be followed to perfect an appeal. (The right to appeal may require review of both the city code and state statutes and these procedures must be strictly followed.)
While not intended to be an exhaustive list, the above rights are substantial protections against abuses of the special assessment power. The attorneys at Larkin Hoffman have significant experience in helping business owners and landowners generally protect and enforce these rights.