Water District property entitled to tax exempt status even though District rents to private business on river front

Tarrant Appraisal District v. Tarrant Regional Water District 02-17-00042-CV (Tex. App— Fort Worth, January 25, 2018)

The Tarrant Appraisal District (“TAD”) asserted part of the property owned by the Tarrant Regional Water District (“TRWD”) was not “used for public purposes” and therefore was not tax exempt. The Fort Worth Court of Appeals affirmed the order dismissing TAD’s suit. [This is a 37 page opinion, but has excellent language on “public purpose” definitions applicable to governmental entities. Sorry, but long opinion equals long summary in comparison.]

TRWD acquired property in connection with a federal control project. Undertaken in concert with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, the program’s purpose was to control flooding on the Clear Fork Trinity River. A portion of the property was not used directly for flood control but was used for public trails, common areas, and river access. In an effort to counteract a lack of use outside of certain areas along the trails and “to encourage development of river-facing businesses on TRWD’s property and adjoining properties,” TRWD determined it would improve and lease to chef Tim Love’s River Shack, LLC to run a restaurant on the river front property. River Shack pays TRWD rent based on a percentage of its annual sales and “[a]ll income received by TRWD from the [lease] is deposited into the general fund of TRWD and used exclusively for [] TRWD’s public purposes.” TAD asserted the property was not exempt from taxation. TRWD followed the procedures in the Tax Code to challenge the decision, ending in district court. TRWD filed a motion for summary judgment which the trial court granted. TAD appealed.

TRWD is a governmental entity created under statute. TRWD is authorized to make and enforce reasonable rules that are necessary to accomplish TRWD’s “authorized purposes,” which include (i) regulating “all recreational and business privileges on any . . . body of land . . . owned . . . by the district,” (ii) promoting “state or local economic development,” and (iii) stimulating “business and commercial activity in the district.” TRWD is further permitted to provide for or participate in the acquisition, construction, development, operation, or maintenance of recreational facilities intended to promote economic development. TAD contends the Tax Code should control over the TRWD authorization statutes and applies only when public property is used exclusively for the use and benefit of the public.  TRWD asserts its creation is dictated by the Texas Constitution and it serves a public purpose as a matter of law. Interestingly, the court, after going through a detailed analysis of the Texas Constitution, statutory construction principles, and the Tax Code, held the Tax Code controls, but the property is exempt as a matter of law.

The court ends up holding unconstitutional, as a local law, a portion of the uncodified statute authorizing TRWD’s creation and authority. The result being the Tax Code controls for purposes of determining the exemption. Under §11.11(a) of the Texas Tax Code, a property is exempt from taxation if it is used for a public purpose. The court declined to adopt TAD’s interpretation that it must be used “exclusively” for public purposes with no simultaneous use benefiting an individual private business. The court compared other statutes and constitutional provisions where the legislature expressly inserted  “exclusive-use” language. TAD’s argument “has no basis in the text” of either the Tax Code or its constitutional counterpart for exclusivity. Whether property is used for public purposes is a highly fact-specific question that must be answered on a case-by-case basis. The court held “[c]ontrary to TAD’s overly-narrow characterization, the Property is not some run-of-the-mill strip mall that TRWD developed merely for retail purposes. River Shack no doubt operates a business for profit, but that is only one facet of a larger project that, at its core, unquestionably has a public purpose.” TRWD entered into the lease with River Shack “to encourage development of river-facing businesses on TRWD’s property and adjoining properties.” The property “was intended and designed as a trail amenity to provide the public with recreational enhancements ancillary to the public’s use of the Trinity Trails system.” Thus, the evidence conclusively demonstrates, TRWD leased the property to River Shack in connection with its optimistic plan to develop it for economic and recreational purposes. With its pavilion, common areas, and location adjacent to the Trinity Trails, and developed and leased for economic and recreational purposes, the property is used for public purposes as a matter of law.

If you would like to read the opinion click here. Panel consists of Chief Justice Walker, Justice Meier and  Justice Gabriel. Memorandum opinion by Justice Meier. The attorney listed for Tarrant Regional Water District is Steven K. Hayes. The attorneys listed for Tarrant Appraisal District of Harris is Catherine Jane Alder and Todd A. Clark.