Brown: Tax suit, threat of sheriff’s sale prompts large tax payments from Liberty County development

Owners of The Preserve, formerly known as Cypress Lakes, are part of a tax lawsuit with Liberty County and Tarkington ISD.

By Vanesa Brashier,

Liberty County is claiming a victory in a tax collection lawsuit against the developers of The Preserve of Texas, formerly known as Cypress Lake Estates. According to Liberty County Tax Assessor-Collector Ricky Brown, since May 31 his office has received nearly $2 million in payments from a new developer of the property.

Brown discussed the suit briefly at a special-called meeting of the Liberty County Commissioners Court on July 2.

“Tarkington ISD will get the bulk of the payments, $1.2 million, and the county will receive around $630,000,” Brown explained after the meeting. “This suit was for a group of 2,300 lots that were set for foreclosure in June. We delayed the sheriff’s sale because the developer has now paid about 60 percent of the taxes.”

The payments have temporarily halted the sheriff’s sale so long as the developer makes good on plans to pay the remaining $2 million in back taxes, Brown said.

The back taxes were for lots that are not individually owned as those owners are responsible for their taxes. The back taxes were for unsold or foreclosed lots, for which the developer is responsible. Brown said the entire development has roughly 4,000 lots.

According to Brown, some of the tax debt accumulated over a 20-year period. Because the statutes only allow tax liens to exist for 20 years, taxes in arrears for 20 years would have been lost.

“When 2019 rolled around, the taxes owed for 1999 would fall off, and so on. The only way to extend that time is through a court judgment,” Brown said. “Owning the property was not the county’s goal. It’s a complex situation because there are people living in this private, gated subdivision. It’s a delicate thing because we aren’t trying to hurt the developer or to put a bad light on him. We aren’t trying to be an adversary but simply trying to help him transition into becoming a productive taxpayer in Liberty County.”

Brown said the circumstances that led to the tax suit didn’t happen overnight. They began with previous developers and were passed on to new developers along the way. In his seven years as tax collector-assessor, Brown has seen the property sold twice.

“The previous developers did improvements and a lot of people bought land out there. They spent a lot of money fixing things up. The Trinity River has made it both an attraction and a problem. The beauty of being on the river, all the wildlife, tranquility and serenity makes it a one-of-a-kind place,” Brown said. “The problem is when people tried to go use their property, they’ve been discouraged because of the high water from recent flooding along the Trinity River.”

Brown said that when he was first elected as tax assessor-collector, he sought out information on the biggest delinquent property in the county, which turned out to be the Cypress Lakes subdivision. He was committed to seeing the development get caught up on its back taxes, so he hung a map of the development on a wall in his courthouse office to remind himself daily to see the task to fruition.

Attorney Mike Fielder initiated the lawsuit for the county and “did the heavy lifting,” Brown said. Tarkington ISD was represented in the suit by its own attorneys.

When asked if the development’s property values might need to be adjusted, Brown said values are not an area he is willing to discuss as that falls on the Liberty County Central Appraisal District.

“It’s the CAD’s job to determine value and there is a process for property owners to go and protest values,” he said.

Tarkington ISD is happy to be getting the lion’s share of the tax payments, which Superintendent Dr. Marc Keith said will be put to good use.

“We don’t know the exact outcome for Tarkington ISD, but it will be a substantial amount. The thing about it is it is back taxes. It’s money we’ve been owed for educating students,” Keith said. “It will go into our fund balance and our board of trustees will make some decisions about what projects we want to do as far as budgeting those dollars. Whatever we get will be good for the district.”

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