How to Find the Facts
Most of the relevant information about land ownership and taxation is available in the county courthouse, and your access to it is, in most cases, protected by state law. Most county officials and their staffs respect this right and will be cooperative. Where they are not, you should be prepared to defend your right to the data.
Among the questions that can be answered through patient and persistent investigation are:
• Who are the largest land and mineral owners in the county?
• Where is their property located?
• What taxes are assessed on that property?
• Where do the owners live — in the county or elsewhere?
• How much of the county’s land is tax-exempt?
• If mineral leasing has occurred, where, by and to whom?
Property tax books, the primary source of land ownership information, are compiled yearly and are normally found in the office of the county tax assessor or other county official responsible for sending out tax notices.
Two separate books record tax information on (1) personal property, including vehicles, machinery, livestock and, in some cases, leases; and (2) real property, including land, minerals and buildings. These books are divided into sections according to voting or magisterial districts within the county. If you don’t know the precise boundaries of those districts, you can usually determine them by looking at an official county map.
Property owners are listed alphabetically within each district, although, in some cases, commercial (corporate) holdings are listed separately at the end of the district. So, if no corporate listings are apparent at first, or if you can’t find a particular corporate holding, you should check to see if there is a separate listing. Sometimes publicly owned land and other tax-exempt land is also listed at the end of each district’s list.
The real property tax books will show such things as:
• the owner’s name
• the owner’s address*
• a description of the property
• the number of acres or size of the lot
• the type of minerals present, if any**
• the property’s location
• the value of the land, minerals and improvements
• the amount of tax billed to the owner
• the tax map parcel number
• the deed book reference
Most of these items are self-explanatory, but a few call for elaboration:
• The value — Every piece of property listed should have either an assessed or an appraised value next to it. “Appraised value” usually refers to a supposed calculation of “true and actual” value or “market” value. In many cases, appraised values are outdated and/or considerably lower than true value. “Assessed value” is usually a fixed percentage of the appraised value, used to determine the amount of tax due. The percentage set for a particular class of property should be uniform throughout the county. If only the assessed value is listed, you can compute the appraised value of a piece of property by knowing the fixed percentage.
• The actual tax billed is figured by multiplying the county’s tax rate times the assessed value. For example, in a county where the tax rate is $3 for every $100 of property value, the tax on a piece of property appraised at $6,000 would be: ($6,000 / $100) X $3 = $180. In comparing taxes charged to different owners, you should remember that there are usually different tax rates for different kinds of property. Commercial property, for example, is often taxed at a higher rate than agricultural property. The tax assessor’s staff can probably explain the rates if you ask them.
• The parcel number refers to the county tax maps, and you can use it to determine the exact location of a particular piece of land by matching the number to its place' on the map. The map is generally found in the assessor’s office, but not all counties have them.
• The deed book reference usually gives a volume and page number to help you find the place in the county deed books where the deed and any leases on the property are listed.
Some counties also include totals or recapitulations at the end of each district list or at the end of the volume itself. These can be useful in comparing the total assessed values and/or taxes paid by type of property, though much depends on how the totals are summarized.
How you tally or summarize the information you find in the property tax books will depend on your purposes. If you are really interested only in large owners, you can use some arbitrary acreage cut-off, as we did in the Appalachian land study. We also designed a coding sheet to record data for later computer analysis, but many local research needs will be simpler. Your research may range anywhere from a single visit to the courthouse to several days of tedious work.
Though we primarily used property tax books in our study, we sometimes had to refer to deed/lease books to clarify ownership questions. Deed/ lease books were especially helpful in tracing the history of corporate ownership of particular parcels and the enormous amount of leasing now going on in the region. These books are usually kept in the office of the county clerk or the county recorder. Sometimes deeds and leases are recorded in the same volumes, and sometimes they are listed separately. In either case, the volumes generally have a separate index where the names of all parties to property transactions are listed alphabetically each time a transaction occurs. Deeds are indexed according to both the “grantor” (the individual or company selling the property) and the “grantee” (the individual or company buying it.) Indexes for leases are indexed by “lessor” (the individual or company leasing out the property) and “lessee” (the individual or company assuming the lease).
The indices will refer you to a volume and page number of the deed/lease books where you can find the wording of actual terms of the deeds or leases. In the case of leases, you can discover: the names of the lessor and lessee, the acreage involved, the length of time involved, the types of minerals, the royalties to be paid and other conditions of the lease. In the case of deeds, you can determine: the buyer and seller, the date of the property transfer, the parcel’s location and description, the terms and any special conditions of the transfer and, in many cases, the price paid and total acres of land or minerals involved. Where leases and deeds are recorded in the same volumes, leases are usually appended to the deed and can be found by referring to the property through the grantor/grantee index.
Deed/lease books are important if you want to determine how much leasing is going on in the county, what kind and between what parties, or if you want to determine whether a particular company has leased in the county, how much it’s leased and from whom. Suppose there is a rumor that Gulf Oil Corporation has been leasing in your county. You can go to the lessee/lessor index, look up Gulf Oil and determine if and when it has leased there. The index will refer you to the volume and page where you can read the terms of the actual lease.
For additional information on large property owners, particularly corporate owners, you will sometimes need to go beyond what you can find in the courthouse. This is particularly true when you want to find out who really owns a piece of property. The office of the secretary of state, usually in the state capital, records information on corporations that do business in the state. By letter or a personal visit, you can learn who the incorporators of a company are, where it was incorporated, who is on the board of directors, who the current officers are and some of the history of the company. Reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington by corporations of a certain type and size also reveal valuable information about subsidiaries, assets and ownership. Ask for Forms 10-K and 8-K filed by the company you are researching.
Publications that may prove useful include: the Keystone Coal Industry Manual, Moody’s Industrial Manual, Standard and Poor’s Register of Corporations, Directors and Executives and Who Owns Whom directories. These sources can help with corporate histories, officials and directors of large companies and relationships between subsidiaries and their parent companies.
Familiarity with these resources will allow you and other local people and citizens’ groups to reclaim possession of public information too often left to the province of corporate lawyers and leasing agents. It can be knowledge for the people rather than knowledge against the people, as the land study in Appalachia amply demonstrated.
This summary is excerpted from the draft of a manual on how to do land ownership research being prepared by the Land Task Force (available from the Highlander Center, 1959 Highlander Way, New Market, TN 37820). The discussion on deed/ lease books owes much to an excellent work by Laura Batt called Coal Industry Research Guide (Eastern Kentucky Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, January, 1980, also available from Highlander).
* In West Virginia, the owner’s address is usually not listed in the tax books, but you can find it at the local sheriff’s office, which has the job of mailing out the tax bills to property owners.
** If the property is designated as fee or fee simple, it means it includes both the land surface and any minerals. That is, the mineral rights have not been severed from surface ownership.