A property owner in Fort Bend County is being forced to sell after unrelenting increases to land value have led to increases in his property tax bill of nearly eight-hundred percent in just a few years.

The property is a two-acre plot purchased twenty years ago in what is now considered Fort Bend County’s Pecan Manor. Not wanting to become a burden on the state as they aged, the owners, Steve and Angela Wetch, purchased the land hoping for their children to build on it in years to come. Never did they expect the state to become a burden on them.

Property values in Fort Bend County, and around Pecan Manor, have increased substantially over the last two decades as a master planned community called “Riverstone” was developed. But despite all of the development occurring over the years, it wasn’t until recently that the increases on their land made it unaffordable to maintain.

Their property tax bill on the two-acre plot went from $1,391 in 2015 to $11,330 in 2018 because of skyrocketing appraisals, all while the property remained unimproved land.

The bulk of the increases came in 2017 and 2018 where they saw 245% and 305% increases, respectively. The 245% increase in 2017 was after the Wetch’s protested, the original increase would have been 270%.

Since the land is vacant and unimproved, it does not qualify for a cap on the increases.

“As a result of these exorbitant tax increases, we are forced to sell this lot,” Steve told Texas Scorecard. “We need reasonable caps on the rate of increase on all property, not just homes. We need retroactive consideration for those who have had these type of unlimited increases.”

They compared other appraised properties in their area and felt that there was “inconsistent behavior by the county” because two of their neighbors with separate lots have not seen increases either year.

“As property owners, especially retired, we cannot keep property with unpredictable increases and that this trend is not sustainable.  They literally have forced us to sell and destroy our dream of having our daughter and family right near us.  This is something that we had planned as an option a very long time ago. We have owned our home and nearby lot about 20 years,” they said.

Fort Bend County Appraisal District records show that without any changes to the land, the appraised value went from $76,200 in 2016 to $207,360 in 2017.

This situation is an extreme example — Fort Bend County taxpayers pay the highest property taxes in the state — of what Texans across the state are feeling.

Property owners in Fort Bend deal with paying to a significant number of taxing entities. For instance, some owners can be taxed by eight or nine entities including the county, city, community college, ISD, levy improvement district, freshwater supply, and a host of municipal utility districts and emergency service districts.

The problems faced by the Wetch’s though, stem from increased appraisals and can begin to be addressed through the substantive property tax reform that has been proposed by Gov. Greg Abbott and policy that State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has been long advocating for.

Their main issue in this situation is that the appraisal district continues to increase their land’s appraised value despite no improvements on the land having been made. “We are asking for specific legislation at the state level to have caps on the rate of increase on all types of property, not to exceed 5-7%,” Steve said.

Between 2012 and 2016, Fort Bend County property owners saw values increase 35 percent with 20 percent happening in just 2015 and 2016. Forcing appraisal district directors to be elected officials, as proposed by Abbott, can help curb the penchant to increase values, especially in Fort Bend County. Abbott’s plan also calls for employees of taxing entities to be prohibited from serving in any capacity with an appraisal district because of the obvious conflict of interest this proposes.

Steve and Angela have tried to reach out to both their State Rep. Rick Miller and the chief appraiser, but have not received replies.

Property owners, like the Wetch’s, have to wait until next legislative session for a resolution as it doesn’t seem local entities will willingly lower their tax rates or limit their appraisal increases. But in the meantime, stories like this should serve as a reminder to Texans that because of the legislature failing to earnestly tackle property tax reform last session, taxpayers are still being forced off of their own land for being unable to keep up with the government’s demand.

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.