Some Big Chains Like To Pretend Their Stores Are Closed When It Comes To Paying Tax

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

A big-box store is, by definition, well, big. All that retail, storage, and parking space takes up a fair amount of land. So you’d think that in any state with a property tax, stores would, well, be taxed on their property. And they are… until they’re not.

It’s called the “dark store” strategy, the Dallas Morning News reports, and it appears to be spreading.

The Dallas Morning News is on it because Lowe’s is trying it in Texas. In at least four counties, the paper reports, Lowe’s has challenged its tax bill, saying that its properties should all be valued as if they sat empty. Which is an interesting trick, since all four of the stores are currently open for business.

The argument goes something like this: Big box stores are a unique use of real estate. If the holder vacates the property, that leaves a big empty box that can be hard to fill, and may become a troublesome spot. Empty stores, that have been vacated, are actually “dark,” and nobody wants those since they fail to provide revenue, jobs, or anything else of use.

So the dark-store strategy is something of a dare: Nice, thriving retail district you’ve got here! Sure would be a shame if something happened to it, right? *nudge nudge, wink wink*

In Texas, the Dallas Morning News explains, counties make tax valuations based on a commercial property’s “highest and best use.” For a retail store currently in operation, that means a business currently serving consumers, as opposed to an abandoned lot. That’s going to be a higher value than an empty husk of a long-shuttered retailer, by a fair amount.

But in a set of lawsuits, Lowe’s is appealing those rulings. Rather than being taxed at the highest use, Lowe’s is arguing, the tax assessment should be set the same as if the store were sitting dark.

The concern in Texas is not just five Lowe’s stores, of course; it’s the implications if those appeals succeed. The home-improvement retailer has 141 locations in the Lone Star state, the Morning News notes, and if all of them managed to cut their tax obligations down to a quarter of their current value, that shortfall would land hardest on individual homeowners who would be looked at to make up the difference.

Bexar County deputy chief appraiser Mary Kieki told the Dallas Morning News that if it becomes a trend, it “could be enormous.”

“It wouldn’t stop with the big boxes like Sam’s, Lowe’s, and Home Depot,” Kieki added. “You could see it continue with Kohl’s and CVS. Where does it stop?”

Texas is not the first state where retailers have employed the dark-store strategy, either. Chains have successfully used the argument to get their taxes reduced in Indiana, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, and Michigan. Michigan in particular has been hard hit, the Morning News notes, with stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, Target, and others managing to get big-box store value assessments collectively dropped by $75 million.

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Will big box retail’s ‘dark store’ strategy lead to fewer taxes in Texas? [Dallas Morning News]