October 9, 2012
The True Value of Conservation Easements
As regular readers know, I am obsessed with fascinated by conservation easements. Lately, I have been particularly intrigued by valuation concerns. Where a landowner donates a conservation easement on her property, she can receive some favorable tax benefits at the local, state, and federal levels. On federal taxes, landowners can deduct the value of the conservation easement from their taxes in the same way they make deductions for other charitable contributions. This, of course, leads to valuation problems. Without an active conservation easement market, it is hard to figure out what their worth should be. Landowners want high appraisals because it increases the tax deductions. The IRS, however, has been increasingly skeptical of these deductions (especially following some 2003 Washington Post exposes about The Nature Conservancy).
This issue seems particularly salient where conservation easements (including historic facade easement) appear simply to replicate existing land use laws. In such cases, there is a strong argument that the value of the conservation easement should be zero and the landowner should not receive a tax break. Indeed, the landowner does not seem to have lost anything in the transaction. She does not change her behavior and property sales may not even be affected. The Tax Court seemed to agree with this reasoning in the recent Foster Case, where the IRS denied a tax deduction for a historic facade easement. The Tax Court upheld the IRS' finding because, inter alia, the restrictions on the property mirrored those already embodied in local law.
It is not uncommon for conservation easements to replicate or even to conflict with local zoning and land use laws. Proponents of conservation easements point out that conservation easements protect against future actions -- futures where land use codes or other laws could change but the restrictions would still remain in place. While I see there point, something still rubs me the wrong way when we pay people to do things they were going to do anyway. How can we figure out the best way to quantify the public benefit here?
- Jessie Owley
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