Monday, June 23, 2014
As long-time readers know, I have an obsession with interest in conservation easements. In particular, I have been intrigued with a category I call "exacted conservation easements," which I view as any conservation easements that have been created in exchange for some type of land-use permit or development benefit.
Many conservation easements are donated to land trusts and government entities. Those landowners are then able to seek deductions for charitable contributions on their federal tax returns based on the fair market value of the conservation easement. Of course, calculating the fair market value of a conservation easement may not be a simple task, but we can leave that discussion for another day. Today, I want to talk about the potential for tax deductions on exacted conservation easements.
Exacted conservation easements exist because a landowner is seeking the right to develop or change her land in a way currently restricted by law. For example, where a landowner wants to convert endangered species habitat into a residential development, the landowner often agrees to burden other land with conservation easements in exchange for an incidental take permit. Now, in what I hope is an uncontroversial statement, I often assert that such conservation easements should not garner landowners any charitable tax benefits. Unfortunately, I heard many stories of landowners seeking and obtaining tax deductions for such properties.
In a recent tax court opinion, we see an example from Colorado. In Seventeen Seventy Sherman Street, LLC [SSSS] v. CIR, T.C. Memo 2014-124, the Tax Court examined the deductibility of historic facade and interior conservation easements. SSSS wanted to develop an historic site (the Mosque of the El Jebel Shrine of the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine) in Denver into condos. Because the property is a designated landmark, the architect proposed building in the parking lot and preserving the shrine "as leverage to induce the city of Denver to modify the zoning restrictions governing the use and development of the [property,]" which at that time was not zoned for residential development (T.C. Memo at 5-6). SSSS then entered into negotiations with the city's Community Planning and Development Agency regarding changes to the Planned Unit Development (PUD) for the area, the conservation easements, height variance, etc. The Agency asserted that it would not recommend any changes to the PUD or granting of the height variances without the conservation easements.
Hopefully, you see quickly why I label these exacted conservation easements (or I sometimes call them "coerced conservation easements") and why they differ from the vision most folks have of conservation easements protecting the family homestead and helping farmers keep the property in the family. Here, we have a developer with no emotional connection to the property simply making a deal to obtain the development rights that the developer sets as its goal. This doesn't mean that the developer doesn't value the historic, scenic, and cultural benefits of this property. Indeed, a developer may purchase an important or beautiful site exactly because it believes those features are important, BUT we may not have the same ideas of freedom of contract or donative intent involved. We might want to view such conservation easements differently, more critically.
So what kind of tax break should SSSS be able to get here? My initial take on these has always just been zero. The conservation easements were exchanged for a varaince and favorable development measures; they are not donations. But as the Tax Court points out, we may be able to find some instances where some of an exacted conservation easement was done in exchange for a permit or some other benefit, but the value of the restriction actually exceeds the value of the permit. Frankly, while I agree generally with that sentiment, I have trouble picturing where that might occur. How do we calculate that? Without the conservation easements here, we know there would have been no permit. So can we really say that the value of the conservation easements exceeds the value of the permit? If so, are there ways to confine the conservation easement to bring it in line with the value of the permit? They have to be perpetual, so we could only change other characteristics. Suddenly I feel like we are immersed in some Dolan-like analysis of value and proportionality.
The conservation easements in this case were first valued at over $7 million. On its tax forms, SSSS did not indicate that it had received anything of value in exchange for the conveyance of the conservation easements (to Historic Denver). The IRS responded that SSSS had failed to meet some filing and appraisal requirements and asserted that the conservation easements should only be valued at a little over $2 million but claimed that the interior CEs were not deductible at all, leaving the potentially deductible amount at $400,000. Here, the Tax Court did not need to determine the value of the conservation easements or the value of the development benefits SSSS received in exchange for them because SSSS failed to identify that it received consideration for the CEs as required by the Tax Code. The court continued to explain that the exchange sure looked like a quid pro quo one with SSSS agreeing to the CEs (whatever their value) in exchange for the Planning Agency's support (whatever its value).
I am glad to see the IRS taking a careful look at these conservation easements. Generally, I think we should be wary of any conservation easements emerging from development schemes.