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The Daily Tar Heel

Orange County residents paid taxes on property they didn't own for years

A sign marking the entrance to Lake Orange boat access. Residents of the Lake Orange area have been paying taxes on land owned by Lake Orange Inc.

John and Judith Guibert were recently met with an unpleasant surprise: For 15 years, they were taxed on land they did not own.

The Orange County residents discovered that 0.37 acres of their land belonged to Lake Orange Inc., a property development firm in the area. This means that while the county had been collecting property tax on 1.9 acres of land, the Guiberts only owned 1.53 acres. 

In a meeting of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners on Sept. 17, the couple presented their case, which was originally scheduled for June 4 before it was postponed. 

“When we originally filed this request, we were notified by staff… that they’d approve it,” John Guibert said. “The day before, actually, that the meeting (on June 4) was to be held, we got a phone call from one of the people in the tax office saying that the paper that was now being recommended denied our claim.”

The meeting on Sept. 17 saw the Guiberts formally present their request to the commissioners. Representatives from the office of the Orange County Tax Commissioner also accompanied them.

In a presentation put together by her office, Orange County Tax Administrator Nancy Freeman established that Lake Orange Inc. owned all of the land between the 615’ and 620’ contour lines — markers of elevation used to demarcate property boundaries — of the lake. Freeman also acknowledged that the county adjusted property boundaries to ensure the Guiberts would no longer be forced to pay taxes on the property they did not own. 

Commissioner Mark Dorosin expressed concern with the situation at the meeting. 

“That’s the real issue, right. We have collected twice on the same piece of property,” he said. “What we ought to do is refund the taxes.”

Because state law establishes a five-year statute of limitations on tax refund payments, the Guiberts were only able to request a refund on tax payments made between 2014 and 2018 –a total of $1,658.15 – despite owning the property since 2003.

The Guiberts are not the only ones dealing with this issue. The tax administrator’s presentation at the Sept. 17 meeting outlined the possibility that, after a geographical survey of their land, other residents could discover that some of the property they are being taxed for does not belong to them. 

Approving the request would mean other residents would also be entitled to a tax refund for property they did not own. This became the fulcrum of Orange County Manager Bonnie Hammersley’s recommendation to the board to deny the Guiberts’ refund request.

Some commissioners took this into account when they voted against awarding the Guiberts a refund. Others, like Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos, cited the fact that approving this request would set precedent forcing the county to involve itself in future disputes over property boundaries.

“We end up being the arbiter and money distributor for something that we can’t control,” Marcoplos said.

After having their request denied by the board of commissioners in a 4-3 vote, the Guiberts aim to continue their efforts to inform their community about the issue. 

Judith Guibert expressed her displeasure at how the commissioners denied their request for a refund.

“We paid taxes on land we just flat-out did not own,” she said.

But the couple remains determined to ensure their neighbors and those around them become more aware of the situation.

"I thought it was astonishing and that it was very inappropriate," Judith Guibert said.

The couple indicated a possible next step would be to file a lawsuit against the county, even possibly including others in a class-action case to receive refunds from what the Guiberts believe to be unjust over-taxation. However, the couple said they are not currently willing to go down that path since their efforts could cost more than the funds they would be able to recover. 

“We were not doing this just for ourselves,” John Guibert said. “In fact, we were trying to get them to set a precedent, which is what they feared, I think.”

@GMolero1 | @sclaire_perry

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