Wednesday, April 2, 2014
Some conservation easements in Michigan have been the subject of dispute for over 20 years. In 1992 and 1993, the Glasses donated conservation easements to the Little Traverse Conversancy to protect the shore of Lake Michigan. Charles and Susan Glass then sought a tax deduction for these donations. The IRS was skeptical. These were two conservation easements over a 10-acre parcel and the real conservation value of them seemed seems questionable.
The IRS challenged the Glass’ contention that the conservation easements should qualify for a deduction under § 170(h)(1). Specifically, the IRS felt that the conservation easements did not meet the requirement of being “exclusively for conservation purposes.” The Tax Court disagreed with the IRS holding that the conservation easements qualified because they protected a relatively natural habitat or plant or wildlife (§ 170(h)(4)(A)(ii)) and because the Conservancy had to hold the conservation easements exclusively for conservation purposes (§ 170(h)(5). [Yes there are days when I wish I had taken Tax.] The 6th Circuit upheld the tax court's ruling.
Despite these rulings of the Tax Court and the 6th Circuit, the conservation easements in this case appear to be of questionable value. One of the conservation easements (from 1990) is for a greenbelt along a state scenic highway. The other two conservation easements prohibit development along the lakefront. The parcels they encumber are small, the area would be hard to develop, and development would likely be undesirable. These are plots with vacation homes along the shore of Lake Michigan that are bordered by a bluff. Some parcels in the area however have larger homes and the Conservancy saw a need to seek out and protect shoreline parcels. The proceedings regarding the conservation value of these conservation easements illuminated some inconsistencies in the deeds and questionable appraisals of the value of the conservation easements. The litigation described above indicated that the appraised value of the conservation easements ($340,800) was too high, but it didn't resolve what the value should have been set at.
The Glasses ultimately acknowledged that the value had been assessed incorrectly and that therefore the Glasses had underpaid their federal income taxes. This left the Glasses with substantial tax debt and they looked for a way to make some money. Thus, the Glasses sought to sell the southern portion of their property to their neighbors (the Van Lokerens). Once the neighbors saw an accurate survey detailing the property lines and any servitudes, they decided they were no longer interested in purchasing just the southern portion but indicated that they might consider buying the entire 10 acres. The Glasses then listed just the southern parcel for sale.
The Van Lokerens then reached out to the Conservancy to complain that the proposed sale of just the southern parcel appeared to violate the conservation easements in place. The Glasses were then forced to withdraw the listing. Next, the Glasses developed a plan to subdivide the parcel into condos but keep the conservation easement areas in place to serve as common area. Again, the Van Lokerens complained to the Conservancy (notably Mary Ann Van Lokeren was a member of the Conservancy's Board). After attempts at amicable settlement with the Glasses, the Conservancy ended up suing the Glasses and seek reform of the conservation easements based on the theory that there had been a mutual mistake in the earlier conservation easement description. The Glasses counterclaimed arguing that the Conservancy (and the Van Lokerens) had engaged in some shady practices including “threatening meritless litigation.”
In unpublished decision, the Michigan Appellate Court found against the Glasses, explaining that the Conservancy was not out of line in seeking to ensure its conservation easement was complied with.
As the Glasses were foreclosed on and the parcel is now in other hands, it seems likely possible that we have reached the end of this saga.