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Volume 8 - Opinions of Counsel SBEA No. 3

Opinions of Counsel index

Real property, definition of (satellite dishes) - Real Property Tax Law, § 102(12)(b):

Satellite dishes used as residential television receivers are real property/or taxation purposes if they are structures assembled at or near the point of affixation, are bolted to landbased structures, and have no economic or utilitarian purpose other than that for which they are affixed to the realty.

We have received an inquiry concerning the classification as real or personal property of a satellite dish for television reception. Given the recent development of this technology, the answer to this inquiry is one best resolved on a case-by-case basis.

We have been informed by retailers in the industry that the size of this equipment, when used as residential television receivers, ranges from 4 to 18 feet in diameter. Like size, the systems themselves vary considerably. Depending upon the sophistication of the apparatus, type of materials used, and basing assembly, the weight of the entire system may be anywhere from 300 to 700 pounds. Additionally, the dish itself may consist of either a single unit or as many as four parts requiring assembly. While some require an elaborate base, others may rest simply bolted to a platform atop a pole which itself is set in a cement foundation or, instead, upon a tripod which may or may not be similarly anchored. Finally, the dish may be set on the ground without any basing assembly whatsoever. In any event, it must be connected, by electrical cable, to a television, in a manner not unlike that used in cable television service.

The movability of this equipment is equally variable. Size and weight are certainly considerations but equally important is the manner in which the dish is constructed. As stated above, it may be either of a unitary construction or assembled in segments. While moving a unit 10 feet in diameter and weighing 300 pounds would not be impossible, it would require a special truck to accommodate its size with particular attention paid to a route which either allows wide-loads (where the dish rests horizontally) or provides high clearances (where it sits vertically or angularly). In contrast, a dish which can be disassembled into four parts is more readily movable.

Only real property, not personal property, is subject to ad valorem taxation (Real Property Tax Law, § 300). The relevant definition of real property is contained in subdivision (12) of section 102 of the RPTL:

“Real property,” “property” or “land” mean and include: . . . [b]uildings and other articles and structures, substructures and superstructures erected upon, under or above the land, or affixed thereto (par. [b]).

In Metromedia, Inc. v. Tax Com’n of City of New York, 60 N.Y.2d 85, 455 N.E.2d 1252, 468 N.Y.S.2d 457 (1983), the Court of Appeals held that in making a determination of affixation, the common law fixture tests, though not determinative, are instructive. To meet the common law definition of a fixture, the property must:

(1) actually be attached to real property or something which is appurtenant to that real property;

(2) be applied to the use or purpose to which that part of the realty with which it is connected is used; and,

(3) be intended by the parties as a permanent addition to the real property.

Like the advertising display frames in the Metromedia case, a satellite dish is assembled near or at the place of affixation; it is bolted to a landbased structure and easily removable; and in order to serve its function, it must be connected to a different landbased structure.

It might seem that the actual intent of the party attaching the structure is dispositive of the permanency issue. However, “The intent which the courts have said is controlling is not the initial intention at the time of acquisition, nor the private or subjective intention of the party making the attachment, but rather the intention which the law will deduce from all the circumstances” (Marine Midland Trust Co. v. Ahem, n.o.r., 16 N.Y.S.2d 656, at 679 [Sup.Ct., Broome Co., 1939], citing Voorhees v. McGinnis, 48 N.Y. 278, 286 [1872]; emphasis added).

This objective intention standard remains the rule today under the Metromedia case. The property in Metromedia consisted of 14′ x 48′ steel frames onto which advertising billboards were fastened. After on-site assembly, the frames were hoisted and bolted to elevated subway stations. Although it takes about a week to install a frame, it only takes a day to remove it. The owner could be ordered to remove the frames if they presented a danger or annoyance to the public; in the event that advertising revenues were insufficient, the owner could opt for their removal. Clearly, then, removal of the frames was contemplated and even memorialized in contract. Despite these facts, the Court held this property to be real and subject to taxation under RPTL, section 102(12)(b).

As stated above, the proper classification of satellite dishes is a close question and will necessarily involve the judgment and experience of the assessor in applying the relevant law to the particular facts. The newness of this technology only serves to heighten the difficulty of appraisal.

We are aware of only one judicial decision considering the classification of this type of property. In Van Laar v. Town of Oxford, n.o.r., index No. 83-621, Lee, J. (Sup.Ct., Chenango Co. 11/22/83), the court held that under the common law fixture tests the satellite dish in question was real property under RPTL, section 102(12)(b). This decision was not appealed.

July 25, 1983
Revised April 11, 1984