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Volume 5 - Opinions of Counsel SBEA No. 31

Opinions of Counsel index

Taxes (delinquent) (tax lien list - description) - Real Property Tax Law, §§ 502, 557, 1002:

While descriptions of property for tax sale purposes must of necessity be condensed, they must nevertheless be sufficient to permit identification of property by “a diligent taxpayer, anxious, in good faith, to identify his land” or at least be of such a nature as to inform an interested party of some place or manner of obtaining a more complete description upon inquiry.

We have been asked whether descriptions of parcels on the school district, and water and sewer tax lien lists for a city are adequate for purposes of tax collection and enforcement.

Subdivision 2 of section 1002 of the Real Property Tax Law provides in part that “[s]uch notice [i.e., the notice of tax sale] shall contain a list of the parcels to be sold giving a brief description of each, the name of the owner or occupant thereof as the same appears on the tax roll and the aggregate amount due on each parcel as of the time of sale.” (emphasis added)  While what will constitute a sufficient description for purposes of this statute may vary from case to case, since the form of the tax roll is essentially the form of the assessment roll, the statutory criteria for preparing the latter roll set forth in subdivision 2 of section 502 of the Real Property Tax Law should also be considered. Subdivision 2 of section 502 provides, in part, that “[provision shall be made with respect to each separately assessed parcel of real property for the entry . . . of the name of the owner, last known owner or reputed owner and a description sufficient to identify the same, including the surnames of abutting property owners and the names of the abutting streets or highways, the approximate number of square feet, square rods or acres contained therein or a statement of the linear dimensions thereof.” The courts have generally applied such a test of the sufficiency of the description used in identifying the parcel to be sold in determining the validity of a tax sale challenged on the grounds of a failure of notice to the real property owner.

For example, in a recent case, County of Montgomery v. Gasner, 68 Misc.2d 300, 327 N.Y.S.2d 391, the court upheld a description as sufficient for tax sale purposes where it named the owner-occupants, a road boundary and the owners of adjacent lands on the other three sides, and listed acreage. The court noted (at p. 393):

It is clear that when property sold at tax sale is so erroneously described that it cannot reasonably be identified, to uphold the sale would be to deprive its owner of his property without due process of law. (Kiamesha Development Corp. v. Guild Properties, 4 N.Y.2d 378, 175 N.Y.S.2d 63, 151 N.E.2d 214; Helterline v. People, 295 N.Y. 245, 66 N.E.2d 345). However, such a situation does not exist unless “a diligent taxpayer, anxious, in good faith, to identify his land, could be misled by the . . . description.” (McCoun v. Pierpont, 232 N.Y. 66, 69-70, 133 N.E. 355, 356).

In Kiamesha Dev. Corp. v. Guild Properties, 4 N.Y.2d 378, 151 N.E.2d 214, 175 N.Y.S.2d 63,a description of property sold at a tax sale was held to be inadequate where there were errors in the name of the owner, lot number and western boundary. In Chornonna v. Field, 14 Misc.2d 746, 178 N.Y.S.2d 341, a court held that where all published notices of a tax sale described property as “5′ x 230′,” when in fact it was “75′ x 230′,” the disparity was sufficiently grave to constitute a jurisdictional defect and to render a tax sale void. In City of Syracuse v. Murray, 179 Misc. 244, 38 N. Y.S.2d 465, a court upheld as sufficient for tax sale purposes a description of property which included the street number of the premises, the fact that it was a corner lot, its frontage and depth, and reference to lot number and block letter in the “Seeley Tract” so that it could be readily identified from any examination of a map of such tract. Finally, in McCoun v. Pierpont, 232 N.Y. 66, 133 N.E. 355, the Court of Appeals held that where several other identifying marks were listed and only the map number was omitted, the description of the property satisfied statutory requirements.

Thus, it is readily apparent that there are no strict rules defining what is and what is not a “sufficient description” for purposes of a tax sale. However, in City of Syracuse v. Murray, supra, the court stated (at p. 468):

Descriptions for tax purposes are necessarily condensed, but so long as they are sufficient to identify the property or to inform an interested person of some place or manner of obtaining a more complete description upon inquiry, they have been universally held to comply with the statute.

The question presented herein is whether the city school district, and water and sewer tax lien lists comply with the foregoing requirements. Descriptions on the water and sewer tax lien list include the name and street address of the property along with references to the ward, page and line numbers (apparently references to the assessment roll). As such, these descriptions may be sufficient, within the rationale of the City of Syracuse case (supra) in that they at least inform interested parties “of some place or manner of obtaining a more complete description upon inquiry.” However, the city school district tax lien list is even less descriptive. There, only the names of the owner-occupant and street addresses are listed. While such a brief description might be held to give sufficient notice to an owner of property residing at the specific address, we have serious reservations (based on the case law previously discussed) that such descriptions would be considered sufficient in any other case.

Pursuant to section 557, subdivision 2, of the Real Property Tax Law, the county treasurer has authority to “reject all taxes charged on real property so inaccurately described that the collection of taxes by the sale of such real property cannot be enforced.” While resort to such a remedy may appear to be a drastic measure, it should also be realized that the courts have not hesitated to void deeds of tax sales where the description of the tax delinquent property was insufficient to alert the owner thereof to the impending sale of his property.

June 20, 1975