The owner of the 22,045-acre Elk Mountain Ranch, who is suing for $7.75 million in damages from four corner-crossing hunters, paid property taxes last week based on a ranch value that’s about 35% of what he claims in court the ranch is worth.

Ranch owner Fred Eshelman paid $60,973 in property taxes on Dec. 5 and Dec. 8 based on the county assessor’s “market value” of $10.9 million, a computation from records shows. Eshelman claims in a trespass lawsuit the property is worth $31.3 million.

Based on that $31.3 million figure, Eshelman’s civil trespass suit against four Missouri hunters seeks up to $7.75 million for a 25% diminution of the ranch’s value. Using a ladder to climb over two fence posts, the men passed through the airspace above a corner of his property in 2020 and 2021, without setting foot on his land, according to a civil suit in Wyoming’s U.S. District Court.

That makes Eshelman’s court claim for the ranch value 2.86 times higher than the county’s value on which he paid taxes. Seen another way, the county’s market value is about 35% of what Eshleman states in court the ranch is worth.

Carbon County Assessor Renee Snider set the ranch value according to what state law says is a “preferential assessment of agricultural land … based on the land’s productive capability.” In his civil suit, Eshelman and his Iron Bar Holding’s LLC base the ranch value on an independent 2017 appraisal.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a real estate appraiser would value a ranch higher than a county assessor, Snider said. The state’s agricultural assessment laws require that, she said.

“It will always be much higher,” she said of a realtor’s estimate of market value. “You should not be surprised,” she said, to see an appraisal that’s more than what’s listed as market value on tax rolls.

Git along little dogies

Every state taxes agricultural land differently than other types of real estate, according to experts at The Ohio State University. Tax breaks are given for various reasons including to maintain the economic viability of farming, remove development incentives, protect environmental benefits and tax ag land according to its cost of services.

Owners of agricultural land in Wyoming submit a signed, notarized application seeking to qualify a parcel for agriculture status. If approved, “it lowers the land value to a much less value,” Snider said.

Each year the Department of Revenue sets production values for various classes of agricultural properties. The annual update for all county assessors sets values, for example, for irrigated hay lands differently from dry crop land or upland pastures.

The system is based on “what type of land that actually is [and] what they’re using it for,” Snider said.

“Market value [on] the assessor’s side for agricultural property does not reflect the purchase price an owner could expect to get on the market — or even a ballpark amount of what the property is worth.”

Wyoming County Assessors’ Association President David Divis

Assessors apply those values to the various acreage to come up with a “fair market value” or “fair value” for the property. That label is different on valuation notices from different counties and the amount listed may not represent what a piece of property would sell for.

“The market value is not the true market value of what that land could sell [for],” Snider said of the assessors’ “fair market value” or “fair value” listing.

David Divis, the president of the Wyoming County Assessors’ Association, agreed that confusion may surround the term “market value” used on property valuation and tax notices for agricultural land.

“Market value is really a poor term for that parcel type, because that value we come up with for tax purposes is going to be nowhere near what that property is worth,” Divis, assessor for Sweetwater County, said in an interview. “The term is misleading.”

Assessors’ “fair market value” or “fair value” for residential property is much closer to sales prices than that set for agricultural property, Divis said. For residential property, “that market value should be … right at 95% or 96%” he said.

“Market value [on] the assessor’s side for agricultural property does not reflect the purchase price an owner could expect to get on the market — or even a ballpark amount of what the property is worth,” Divis said.

Wyoming will be your new home

On the Elk Mountain Ranch, all but about 6 acres are classified as agricultural property. The ranch is the site of eight houses that have plumbing, according to Carbon County property tax records.

Assessor Snider placed a market value of those residential improvements at a total of $9.5 million, according to WyoFile calculations made from her records of nine Elk Mountain Ranch parcels. The assessor apparently derives the bulk of that value from an imposing seven-bath, 9,451-square-foot house that records say was built in 2007. The structure, listed in property documents as a two-story house, also has a 4,720-square-foot basement and built-in garage.

That means the agricultural value of the remaining 22,039 acres on tax rolls is $1.37 million or about $63 an acre, according to WyoFile calculations.

To compute the amount of tax due on Elk Mountain Ranch the assessor multiplies the “fair market value” by the “level of assessment” — 0.095 — to arrive at the assessed value of the property. At Elk Mountain Ranch, this produces an assessed value for the whole property of $1,038,984, according to WyoFile calculations.

A notice of valuation for one of nine parcels that make up the Elk Mountain Ranch. (Carbon County assessor)

To figure a tax payment, assessors multiply the assessed value by the mill rate. In Carbon County last year the mill rate on Eshleman’s property that includes the trophy home amounted to 58.5 mills.

Ultimately in 2022, Iron Bar Holdings paid $60,973.49 on property with an assessed value of just over $1 million.

Any free-market assessment of Elk Mountain Ranch’s value — such as that used in Eshelman’s lawsuit — would have to consider that the property is constrained by a conservation easement that prohibits its subdivision. That easement could affect the sales price of the ranch but apparently has little or no effect on its agricultural value.

The North Carolina pharmaceutical businessman bought the property in 2005 with the conservation easement in place after the ranch had been listed for sale for $19.9 million.

Eshelman’s trespass lawsuit, which is expected to go to trial in federal district court in Cheyenne next summer, claims the corner crossers diminished the ranch’s value by between 10% and 25%. A Carbon County jury last spring found the four hunters not guilty of criminal trespass in a separate misdemeanor trial that lasted three days.

The hunters crossed from one piece of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property to another at the common corner with two pieces of Elk Mountain Ranch land, all arranged in a checkerboard pattern of land ownership. The hunters crossed at a U.S. Geological Survey property-corner monument without setting foot on Elk Mountain Ranch land.

In doing so, the Carbon County prosecutor and now Eshelman contend, the men trespassed because they passed through airspace above the private property. Eshelman’s attorneys did not answer an email seeking comment for this story.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Delaying RIGHT IS DELAYING JUSTICE. How many levels of judiciary do we have to procrastinate. CRACK THIS NUT, observe public land of and for the public. Rightful punitive damages to the public should happen.

  2. Maybe Eshelman should claim total rights over the Lincoln Monument, too? The rich have long used public lands as their private playground but there are millions and millions of us that have had enough and this situation is coming to a head. TJ Marks

  3. I predict that the rich man is going to lose and I also predict that right now, as we speak, the welfare 4 cents per day cow/calf public land renters are sweating right now and don’t appreciate how Eshelman brought this situation to light. The big bluff is over and i’d like to say to both the rich out of state landowners and the wyoming stockgrower thugs, the war has just begun and we’re not going to stop with Freddie concerning your use and abuse and the monopoly chokehold your ilk has held on public lands

  4. Since Fred Eshelman decided to pull up stakes and reside part time in Wyoming to play a “cowboy” I’d suggest to Mr. Eshelman that he quit hiding behind is attorney suit brigade and settle this whole thing in the wild west fashion. Real cowboys don’t hide behind others….and real cowboys don’t work and hench for guys like Eshelman

  5. I would like to know if the total acreage of 22,00”+ includes the BLM property it encloses or not?

    Secondly, don’t you have to of caused actual/ physical harm the the property in question before you can sue for damages?

    Thanks

  6. WyoFile is milking this story.

    And Eshelman is probably milking the agriculture status with help from the State, just as many people milk conservation easements to enrich themselves. And just as Eshelman is milking the value of public lands to enrich himself. Trump was the classic example of someone overvaluing their property to get loans while undervaluing it to get tax breaks, and milking conservation easements. There is probably a Rich Person’s Handbook to Milking Tax Collectors that they all read.

    $60,973.49 in property taxes isn’t chump change. I doubt the state or county is providing that much in services every year. And if he isn’t claiming Wyoming as home for tax purposes, then he certainly isn’t gettin’ $61K in benefits from government. I ain’t crying for billionaires, however, especially those who use their wealth to bully others, but does he need to pay more? If he claims to control access to public land, then yes he does. The public should be compensated to the tune of millions of dollars in lost valuation.

    RE: “Assessors’ fair market value for residential property is much closer to sales prices than that set for agricultural property, Divis said. For residential property, “that market value should be … right at 95% or 96%” he said.”

    Wyoming assessors look at property and building characteristics, Marshall and Swift valuation tables, depreciation, etc. It is an inexact ‘science’ much like economics.

    It is highly unlikely that county assessors know if the marble is from Italy or Colorado, if the windows have electrochromic features, or if that door was handmade and with what kind of wood. Was the architect Gehry or Wright? Just how complicated was the structure to design and build? How desirable is a property to a particular buyer with unlimited funds in the face of competition? They don’t know.

    There are over-appraised homes in Jackson Hole that no one wants. They would be bulldozed by any buyer. There are also very expensive properties with very expensive problems that the owners won’t advertise and no county assessor would know after an appraisal inside or out. The quality of construction can vary greatly and go unrecognized by the average county appraiser.

    All tax assements should undervalue a property to some degree to maintain public trust in the fairness of an assesment for tax purposes. And to limit time debating or fighting over valuations which cost taxpayers money (on both sides).

    As for the hunters and Mr. Eshelman, Eshelman’s property will lose value if he can’t claim ownership over access to the public lands. That much is true.

  7. Sometimes Wyoming residents resent the wealthy rancher except: when they enjoy the views across a valley of ranches or they enjoy seeing the elk, deer, antelope, gophers, rabbits, etc that survive because of the ranch, or they seek ranching employment, the rancher supports our schools, communities, etc. Why?

  8. It seems that the Eshelman outfit might have taken tax computation hints from the trump organization.

  9. The idea that the corner crossers diminished the value of the land by “trespassing” in the air should have been rejected outright.
    That this lawsuit even has a court date proves that there are very different rules for the rich than for the rest of us.

  10. Seems like this gentleman is asking the court to place a price on air. If an average person occupies about 12 cu feet, then the four hunters occupied 48 cubic feet, but in crossing the corner, they were in public air space with about half of their bodies, so let’s say they occupied 24 cubic feet of Mr. Eshelman’s for about four minutes. The airspace over his 24,000 acre ranch presumably was available to him for the whole year. If 12 cu feet for four minutes is worth $7.75 million, then a year’s use of 22,000 acres of air is worth $81 followed by 18 zeroes. I think the owner would be somewhat disappointed if the assessor sent him a tax bill for this.

  11. I see nowhere in this article where Eshilman took a Bulldozer and ran it across a School section destroying many acres of Forrest and crossing some major streams, Where’s the damage to the Environment listed. And it’s Utterly Ridiculous to claim Air Space.

  12. I would like to know what the justification is for the 25% devaluation for passing through the air space.

  13. Is the anti enclosure law still in effect? I think that’s the law that Wyoming Hertford Ranch lost some years ago.

  14. The owner of this property needs to drop this entire lawsuit and stay in North Carolina. There is no way the land was devalued by individuals corner crossing his land. In the air or on the ground.

    It is things like this that waste courts time and money.

  15. Mr. Eshelman is missing a bet. He should be suing the airlines that violate his airspace. That’s where the money is.

  16. An example of the vagaries of tax assessment and of “the law” specifically. How on a realistic earth can “airspace” be “owned”, and, if so, should it ALSO be taken into account in future tax assessments on this trophy property which, to my understanding based on past articles, is not being used in any agricultural pursuit?

  17. Ok, NOW I know what this is about. Airspace? Common throw it out. If you are an informed property owner, then you know where the public land is and know that access may be necessary.

  18. Well written article, Angus. It reminds one of the fable of the young boy watching the Emperor parade au naturel down the street, everyone oohing over his imaginary attire sewn by tricksters, and being the sole person to speak the truth: “The Emperor is wearing no clothes!”

    If the “ranch” has the value claimed in the lawsuit, why is the “ranch” owner content to underpay their fair amount of property taxes? Did you find out if the “ranch” owner claims Wyoming as his domicile to avoid paying taxes on income? Or if the “ranch” owner receives subsidies from Wyoming taxpayers for ag-related losses and expenses?

    It appears Wyoming laws and policies, created for real, full-time, hardworking ranchers, are manipulated to provide out-of-state cowboy wannabees with the benefits but not the responsibilities of living in our state. It’s almost a racket, move to Wyoming, buy a large estate, reap the harvest of clean air and water, low crime and unforgettable wildlife, and pay a mere pittance in taxes. Then, hire high powered attorneys and lobbyists to bamboozle local politicians and intimidate the legislature to maintain this feudal system. Thanks Angus, for revealing the modern-day tailors stitching together tax breaks and our elected official’s refusal to see the naked truth.

  19. The federal and state governments, need to make sure there is public access to public land, no matter how that land is fronted or surrounded by private lands. Owners of private land have had the control of public land access far too long, it is time for correction now. Public land is for public use, not for private land owners to control access, and have their own private usage of public land. Real simple to correct…and it’s all about doing what is right.

  20. How long until he sues the state to pay him for the food the wildlife eats? It is time to write mandatory hunting access into lease laws for massive amounts of ground, with some sort of crossings provided. It would be interesting to see how much money is provided to the state by out of state massive land holders taxes versus hunters licenses.

  21. What a discussion you’ve started. How about “water rights”. I’m sure there are some interesting values here. Does the acreage have any “water rights”? How are these valued in Wyoming? And taxed?

  22. Fishermen and fisherwomen can float over any ranch in a raft, but cannot pass over a corner when it protects a rich man’s captured “public” land????????

  23. It is too bad that the assessors are left to determine property value when the value should be what the current owner paid for the property. If someone moved to Wyoming and purchased a property in 1980 for $100,000 then that should be their taxed value for as long as they own that property. If someone purchases that property in 2020 and they pay $2 million for it at that time then that should be it’s new value. If they thought it was worth that then it should be taxed at that rate.
    It would make the assessors jobs much easier if they could tax properties based on their last sales price wouldn’t it ?? There is no reason to raise the property values for everyone just because someone with a lot of money comes in and pays more than a property is actually worth in the local market. Eazy Peezy.

    1. Agreed, then people on fixed incomes like the elderly wouldn’t be priced out of their homes because they can’t afford property taxes like has recently happened in Cody and Jackson. Property taxes should be based on the price of the property when purchased. It is unfair for people to not know what they’ll pay in taxes based on “market rate”.