Thursday, June 26, 2014

Whitehouse v. CIR. 5th Circuit Upholds Major Deduction in Conservation Easement Valuation

No one is more surprised than I with how much time I spend reading about tax law these days, but I wanted to alert folks to another case regarding the valuation of historic conservation easements. This time, we are talking about Maison Blanche - a fancy former department store now an even fancier Ritz Carlton on Canal Street in New Orleans.

In 1997, the Whitehouse Hotel Ltd. (owner of the property) donated an historic preservation conservation easement to protect the facade to the Preservation Resource Center. Whitehouse's appraiser estimated the value of the conservation easement at $7.445 million (not $7,445 million as the 5th Circuit opinion mistates). The IRS cried foul and valued the conservation easement at $1.15 million and also dinged Whitehouse for an extra 40% for underpaying by more than 400%.

Unsurprisingly, litigation ensued. Whitehouse v. CIR,  2014 WL 2609866 (5th Cir. 2014), decided on June 11th is the second time the case has made it up to the 5th Circuit. The disputes have generally been battles of appraisals and valuation methods. I am not going to express any opinion about the appraisal methods but thought I'd point out a few things.

What does the conservation easement allow?

There was a big dispute here as to whether the conservation easement actually had any value. One of the appraisers suggested that because the conservation easement would not actually prevent Ritz Carlton from building what it want to build, the value should be zero. The highest and best use of the property is unchanged by the conservation easement. This conclusion turned in part on the language of the conservation easement and whether it actually prohibited the potential building of 60 additional rooms on part of the hotel complex. The Tax Court agreed with the appraiser that the conservation easement did not have such a prohibition. Whitehouse I, 131 T.C. 112 (Tax Ct. 2010). The Fifth Circuit disagreed. Whitehouse II, 615 F.3d 321 (5th Cir. 2010). On remand to the same judge, the Tax Court reviewed Louisiana servitude law and again stated its belief that the conservation easement did not restrict the additional building and should not have value BUT the Tax Court acknowledged that it was bound by the 5th Circuit's precedent and estimated the conservation easement value based on that assumption (coming up with as the 5th Circuit said "merely $1,867,716"). Whitehouse III, 139 T.C. 304 (Tax Ct. 2012).

Undoubtedly feeling that it got a raw deal from an unbiased judge, Whitehouse appealed but the 5th Circuit upheld the Tax Court stating that even though the Tax Court went out of its way to voice its disagreement with the 5th Circuit that was allowed as long as it actually followed the 5th Circuit.

Can you rely on tax professionals' assessments of your conservation easements?

Well, at first blush the answer to this question looks like "no" because the appraiser was so wrong. But the key question to consider for this case is whether Whitehouse's reliance on its appraiser and other professional should protect it from the penalty for gross underpayment (the 400% thing I mention above). There is a reasonable cause exception that allows taxpayers to get out from under this rather steep penalty. This issue is important for people interested in conservation easements because we see over and over again how far apart the private appraisals can be from those the IRS calculates. How much should we penalize landowners for their underpayments made in reliance on qualified professionals? The Tax Court imposed a 40% gross underpayment penalty, holding that Whitehouse had not done enough to demonstrate that it had reasonable cause to believe the appraisal. The court may have been particularly persuaded by the fact that the appraisal of the conservation easement exceeded the price actually paid for the property. The 5th Circuit reversed on this issue because Whitehouse had consulted with more than one appraiser and consulted other tax professionals. The 5th Circuit found this to be adequate.

I am really torn on this one. We want landowners to be able to rely on qualified appraisers and to impose a 40% tax penalty could be particularly painful to small landowners. But there have been repeated examples of bad appraisals around and it seems like there has got to be some type of smell test. Where a conservation easement is valued so much higher than the purchase price of the property, I hesitate too. Of course, I understand that the purchase price doesn't really tell you the value of the property and the value of what an entity like Ritz Carlton can get out of a property, but at the end of the day as a taxpayer, I don't even like the fact that the landowners here got a $1.8 million dollar charitable tax credit to build a big fancy hotel and condo complex that will make them oodles of dollars. Arguing that they lost $1.8 million because they couldn't make it as absolutely big as they might have just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

June 26, 2014 in Architecture, Caselaw, Conservation Easements, Development, Economic Development, Federal Government, Historic Preservation, Land Trust, Real Estate Transactions | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tax Deductible Exacted Conservation Easements: That's an oxymoron isn't it?

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.

June 23, 2014 in Architecture, Caselaw, Conservation Easements, Development, Federal Government, Historic Preservation, Land Trust, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

McLaughlin on Perpetual Conservation Easements in the 21st Century

Nancy McLaughlin (Utah) has posted Perpetual Conservation Easements in the 21st Century: What Have We Learned and Where Should We Go from Here?, 2013 Utah L. Rev. 687.  Here's the abstract:

The public is investing billions of dollars in conservation easements, which now protect an estimated 40 million acres throughout the United States. But all is not well. Uncertainties in the law and abusive practices threaten to undermine public confidence in and the effectiveness of conservation easements as a land protection tool. This short article is part of a series of articles published in the law review discussing conservation easements, with a focus on what we have learned thus far and where we should go from here. This article sets the stage by describing the dramatic growth in the use of conservation easements, the various laws that impact easement creation and administration, a timeline of important legal and policy developments, and the recent surprising lack of certainty and consensus regarding what it means to protect land “in perpetuity” or “forever” with a conservation easement. The article concludes by discussing how the perpetuity issue might be productively resolved.
 
Jim K.

April 8, 2014 in Agriculture, Conservation Easements, Environmental Law, Environmentalism, Federal Government, Historic Preservation, Scholarship, Servitudes | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Will the generous tax deductions for conservation easements stick around?

Potential tax deductions are one of the driving forces behind creation of conservation easements. The exact contours of the tax deduction (how much can you deduct and over how many years can you stretch your donation) has varied over the years. For the past several years, the deductions have been particularly generous.

Under standard law, individuals can deduct the value of the donated property up to 30 percent of their adjusted gross income, and any excess value can be carried forward for 5 years. But in 2006, Congress passed the enhanced landowner incentive. It allows deductions up 50 percent of donors’ adjusted gross income and over a 15-year carry-forward period. That incentive ended this past December. The consistent support of this tax deduction by Congress led many to people the enhanced version would be extended without struggle.

Perhaps not. The most recent tax-extension proposal from the Senate Finance Committee does not extend the enhanced tax deduction for conservation easements. Russ Shay at the Land Trust Alliance has hypothesized that the bill drafters may want to change the nature of the deduction, but are still likely to keep the enhanced deduction available to some extent. In particular, this might appear an attractive opportunity to remove deductions for conservation easements over golf courses, something both parties (and the IRS) have indicated their support for. Others suggest that a better approach would be to craft legislation making the enhanced deduction permanent so it does not require periodic extensions.

April 2, 2014 in Conservation Easements, Federal Government, Historic Preservation, Land Trust, Servitudes | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, January 24, 2014

What to do when the historic district floods.

I just finished reading a new article by Jess Phelps in the latest issue of Environmental Law. In Preserving Perpetuity?: Exploring the Challenges of Perpetual Preservation in an Ever-Changing World, Phelps tackles some issues closely related to questions I research: what do we do about perpetual permanent restrictions in a world of constant change? Phelps takes a narrower tack  than my articles though, looking just at historic preservation easements. If you think that perpetual land conservation sound challenging, try fooling yourself into thinking that buildings are going to last forever. Well, okay we all know that perpetual restrictions have their usefulness even when we know that a perpetual building is not possible. What I like about Phelps' piece is that he cites me he takes a practical approach, providing specific plans for how to respond when natural disasters damage or destroy structures protected by historic preservation easements. It is a helpful read for land trusts or drafters of conservation easements thinking proactively about climate change impacts.

 

 

January 24, 2014 in Climate, Conservation Easements, Historic Preservation, Land Trust, Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Conservation Covenants in England and Wales

This summer, many of us conservation easement research types received emails from the Law Commission for England and Wales. The Law Commission is similar to the Uniform Law Commission here in the US in mission (researches potential legal reform and presents suggested statutory texts), but the British version is a body established by Parliament and the US version is a non-profit organization.

When considering changes to the law, the COmmission staff assemble consultation papers. The papers present research on the legal topic at issue, suggest statutory parameters and language, and solicit comments from "consultees." Anyone who visits the website and submits the form can comment, but the Commission also contacts specific people and organizations to solicit their views. There is even a form with specific questions on the issue to complete. I thought this was a very informative and interesting approach.

As you should have already gleaned from the title of this approach, the Law Commission is examining the case for introducing "conservation covenants" into the law of England and Wales. Now, while I read the consultation paper carefully and made lots of notes (several exclamation marks in the margins of this one), I just couldn't get my act together to submit comments  by the June 21st deadline. While this is just a proposal and not yet even a proposed bill, there are lots of interesting things going on in this british version of conservation easements. I thought I would highlight a few of them for you here:

(1) Specific choice not to use the word easement.

(2) No tax breaks associated with donating conservation covenants.

(3) All transactions must be voluntary, so presumably that means no exactions or eminent domain-like creations. However, the Commission contemplates widespread use for offsetting schemes.

(4) Conservation covenants are much easier to terminate or modify. With holders having power to unilaterally discharge obligations. Also suggests a judicial proceeding with specific factors that the tribunal should consider in modifying or terminating the covenants

(5) leaseholders with long leases can enter into conservation covenants for the term of their lease

Plus oh so much more.The differences between the proposed law and the US laws is significant.

I'd be really interested to hear both what consultees said in response to this paper and what you would change here in the US if we were to rewrite our conservation easement laws. (I have my own little wishlist of course).

- Jessica Owley

 

August 21, 2013 in Conservation Easements, Historic Preservation, Judicial Review, Property, Property Rights, Servitudes | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day & Land Use

The U.S. tradition of Memorial Day has a long and complex relationship with land, history, and memory.  This post has some thoughts on the subject from last year.

Today was Memorial Day in the US.  There are lots of land use issues that we can associate with Memorial Day, which, stripped to its essence, is designed as a day to remember the military members who died in service to the nation.  There is the obvious land use issue of cemeteries, and the related legal and cultural norms governing how we memorialize the dead (check out any of the interesting blogposts or scholarship by Al Brophy and Tanya Marsh on cemeteries).  It gets even more relevant when we start talking about government-owned national or veterans' cemeteries, and the attendant controversies about First Amendment and other issues.  [The photo is from last year's Memorial Day ceremony at Houston National Cemetery, which my daughter attended to honor fallen Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Sauer Medlicott.]  Of course, there are always land use and local government issues involved with things like parades and public ceremonies, and in many communities there are specific rules that govern the "summer season" informally commenced on Memorial Day weekend.

Check out the whole post for some info about a couple of little-known and interesting events from the early history of Memorial Day and land use, including what may be the first Memorial Day celebration, by African-Americans in Charleston on the former planters' racecourse, and a U.S. Supreme Court case about eminent domain for historic preservation on Gettysburg National Battlefied.

We hope you had a safe and happy Memorial Day.

Matt Festa

May 27, 2013 in Eminent Domain, Federal Government, Historic Preservation, History, Property, Race, Scholarship, Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Church Fire in Athens

So I've been taking something of a break from blogging during my quasi-sabbatical, but I got a powerful lesson about the power of place this week, something that seemed worth sharing.  

Monday night Oconee Street United Methodist Church in Athens experienced a terrible fire.  This is the church my husband and I attended in Athens, and it's been powerful to see the effect of the fire on the community.  At first there was shock and grief but very quickly the community began to rally. The church is the home of the local soup kitchen, and only hours after the blaze they were serving breakfast in front of the still smoldering building.  A campaign has begun to restore the historic structure (originally built in 1903).  This church is an Athens institution, popularly known as the "church on the hill."

A few years ago I blogged about the rebuilding of another Athens insitution gutted by fire, the Georgia Theater.  The community banded together to help finance the two year rebuilding process, and the theater re-opened better and more beautiful than ever in 2011.  Here's hoping the same thing can happen with this wonderful little community church!

Jamie Baker Roskie

 

April 18, 2013 in Georgia, Historic Preservation, History | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Zasloff: Has New Urbanism Killed Land Use Law?

Jonathan Zasloff (UCLA) has a piece on Legal Planet: The Environmental Law and Policy Blog (Berkeley/UCLA) called Has New Urbanism Killed Land Use Law?  

My Land Use casebook, like most of them, mentions New Urbanist zoning and planning techniques, but does not dwell on them. In order to teach New Urbanist concepts such as Form-Based Codes, SmartCode, and the Transect, I had to develop my own materials, as well as shamelessly stealing a couple of Powerpoint presentations from a friend who works at Smart Growth America.

What’s the cause of this gap? Is it because land use professors have a thing about Euclidean zoning?

I doubt it. A quick check in the Westlaw “ALLCASES” database yields only one result for the phrase “Form-Based Code” and none of the results for “transect” has anything to do with the New Urbanist land use concept. That means that it is very difficult actually to find cases that reflect aspects of New Urbanism.

One can understand that in several ways, I suppose. You could infer that New Urbanism just leaves less room for legal disputes than traditional Euclidean zoning. For example, there is no need to worry about non-conforming uses, use variances, or conditional use permits with Form-Based Codes because those codes do not regulate uses to begin with. . . .

Now let me quibble with this a little bit: in Houston--the Unzoned City--we supposedly don't regulate uses either.  But it seems we do nothing here but apply for, and fight over, variances, nonconforming uses, and special exceptions, for everything from lot sizes and setbacks to sign code and HP rules.  It seems to me that people are going to want incremental exceptions for building form or site requirements at least as commonly, if not more so, than for use designations.

But overall it's a good point.  Zasloff concludes that even if we do move to form based codes, we'll still probably need to keep a little zoning around:

[W]hile New Urbanism coding can serve as a replacement for a lot of Euclideanism, it cannot eliminate it entirely — not because we are addicted to Euclidean forms, and not because we are dumb, but because lots of the world is uncertain, and cities will have to grapple with that.

I also find that New Urbanism is hard to teach in a doctrinal land use law class.  Zasloff concludes: 

If this is right, then land use casebooks will still emphasize Euclidean zoning, because that’s where the disputes are and necessarily will be.

A problem set with form-based codes would be nice, though. Just sayin’.

I know some recent land use casebooks have moved to a problem-based approach, and some of our colleagues have created their own materials for teaching New Urbanism.  Students find this stuff interesting, so we should all work towards developing these resources for teaching.

Matt Festa

February 8, 2013 in Books, Form-Based Codes, Historic Preservation, Houston, New Urbanism, Teaching, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What is the Value of a Historic Facade Easement?

For those of you interested in conservation easements (particularly historic façade easements), you may have been following the Scheidelman saga.The next installment is now out.

In Scheidelman v. Comissioner, T.C. Memo. 2010-151 [Scheidelman I], the landowner sought a deduction for a façade easement burdening her Brooklyn brownstone. The Tax Court disqualified an appraisal because it viewed the method of calculating the easement’s value inadequate. Appraisals must include the method of valuation used as well as the specific basis for the valuation. The appraiser applied a percentage to the fair market value of the property before conveyance of the conservation easement. The Tax Court found that the appraiser had insufficiently explained the method (i.e., the percentage approach) and basis of the valuation (i.e., the specific data used).

The landowner appealed to the Second Circuit. The Second Circuit [Scheidelman II, 682 F.3d 189 (2d Cir. 2012)] reversed the Tax Court, saying that the shortcomings of the approach should not disqualify the appraisal.

On remand [Scheidelman III, T.C. Memo. 2013-18 ], the Tax Court accepted the Second Circuit's assessment that the appraisal was “qualified” but still  thought it was crappy was not credible. You can check out the case if you want to delve into the nitty gritty of appraisal methods. The most problematic issue appeared to be the fact that the appraisal just picked a number between 10 and 12% of the fair market value of the home when trying to determine the value of the conservation easement. The appraiser's reasoned that those are the numbers that courts and the IRS seem to like instead of actually looking at the property and making an assessment.

I am enamored of this case though because in the end the Tax Court said no tax deduction is warranted. The evidence demonstrates that façade easements actually increase the value of homes in this area. Additionally, the landowner herself admitted that she was seeking a tax deduction for something she would have done anyway. Here is my favorite quote from the landowner:

    "Well, I was primarily interested in preserving my house itself in light of the dramatic development     that was occurring in and around Fort Greene during those years and still is. I was also intrigued by     the tax benefit of preserving the facade which I had intended to do anyway. …I also wanted to benefit     tax wise. I didn't know how much I would benefit, but I wanted to benefit from what I was already     intended to be committed to doing."

I have been disturbed fascinated by conservation easement tax deductions that pay owners not to do things they never planned on doing. In understand that there can be some value to the conservation easements becuase perhaps future landowners would have other desires, but it is hard for me to reconcile that worth with the high value of tax deductions current landowners receive. I am glad to see the IRS and Tax Court calling these landowners out. Maybe if a landowner seeks to claim a tax decuction for a conservation easement and we see that the conservation easement increased the value of their land, they should have to pay that difference to the treasury.

Jessica Owley

 

 

 

January 22, 2013 in Architecture, Caselaw, Conservation Easements, Development, Historic Preservation, New York, Property Rights | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Great collection of historic preservation articles

Last fall I attended the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference, which was held in Spokane, Washington. Among the conference schwag was a special edition of the Trust’s Forum Journal magazine called Game Changers: Forum Journal Articles That Have Made a Difference, 1987-2012. The special edition has a number of great articles that will be an invaluable resource to anyone with a historic preservation interest. The catch is, it may be hard to get ahold of the special edition if you are not a member of the Trust or did not attend the conference because the Trust does not appear to sell single copies (or at least, I did not see a way to purchase the issue on the Trust's website).  For those who may be interested, here is a list of the special edition article titles followed by the author in parentheses:

Introduction (Stephanie K. Meeks)

The Future of the National Register (Carol Shull)

The Critical Need for a Sensitive—and Sensible—National Transportation Policy (Constance E. Beaumont)

Cultual Diversity in Historic Preservation: Where We Have Been, Where We Are Going (Toni Lee)

I Can’t See It; I Don’t Understand It; And It Doesn’t Look Old To Me (Richard Longstreth)

Economics and Historic Preservation (Donovan D. Rypkema)

Are There Too Many House Museums? (Richard Moe)

The Greenest Building Is…One That Is Already Built (Carl Elefante)

If any of these articles sound interesting to you, it might be worth trying to track down the Fall, 2012 copy of Forum Journal.

Stephen R. Miller

January 14, 2013 in Historic Preservation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Sale of Frank Lloyd Wright House Assures Preservation

Here's a story out of Arizona, where apparently a historic Frank Lloyd Wright house was under dispute.   From the New York Times story by Fernanda Santos and Michael Kimmelman:

The conservancy and other organizations petitioned the city in June to consider giving the house landmark status, after they learned of the former owners’ plans to split the lot to build the new homes. Three local government bodies approved the landmark designation, but the Council, which has the final say, postponed its vote twice, in part to give the parties more time to strike some type of compromise. There was also uncertainty over how some of its members would vote, given the homeowners’ lack of consent for the landmark process.

“If ever there was a case to balance private property rights versus the public good, to save something historically important to the cultural legacy of the city, this was it,” Larry Woodin, the president of the conservancy, said in an interview. 

Seems like a good result here, while communities across the nation continue to struggle with how to strike that balance.

Matt Festa

January 2, 2013 in Aesthetic Regulation, Architecture, Historic Preservation, History, Homeowners Associations, Housing, Local Government, Planning, Property Rights | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, 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

 

October 9, 2012 in Conservation Easements, Historic Preservation, Land Trust, Servitudes | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Fascinating 21st Century Real Estate Cases

The New York Observer has a list of the 15 Most Fascinating NY Real Estate Cases of the 21st Century, based on a survey of NYC real estate lawyers.  Although most involve contracts or financing gone awry, a few involve zoning and land use disputes.  They also make use of Sherlock Holmes-esque titles, like "The Case of the Mischievous Mall Developer." 

Of particular interest are "The Case of the Masterpiece & The Condo Ad," involving a dispute over advertising, public art, and landmarking.  The "Case of the Museum and the Architect" involves a building designed by Jean Nouvel next to MOMA, as well as zoning, landmarking and air rights issues. "The Case of the Brooklyn Basketball Arena" gives a very truncated summary of the series of legal battles over eminent domain and the construction of a new arena for the Brooklyn Nets.  (For a more detailed account in response from critics of the development see the Atlantic Yards Report).  And "The Case of the Abused J-51" details the legal battles over rent regulation following the $5.4 billion purchase of Stuyvesant Town.

John Infranca

August 15, 2012 in Architecture, Caselaw, Development, Eminent Domain, Historic Preservation, History, Humorous, New York, Real Estate Transactions, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, August 10, 2012

National Trust for Historic Preservation Annual Conference in Spokane - Oct 31 - Nov 3

Following up on Matt's post about the rise of historic preservation in land use planning, and also the excellent new casebook by Bronin and Byrne on the subject, I thought it was worth noting that the NTHPNational Trust for Historic Preservation annual conference will be in Spokane, Washington, this October 31 - November 3.  While this is typically a "practitioners" conference, I don't see why we shouldn't have more professors in the mix there, too.  (And for those of us in the inland Northwest, like myself, this will be a rare chance to catch this conference on our home turf.)  To wit, I will be moderating a panel at the conference on Thursday, November 1 at 1:30 entitled "Bridging Preservation & Environmentalism."  Here is the session description:

This session will offer tools to resolve gaps and conflicts between preservation and conservation. From the local level, panelist Hillary Gitelman, Planning Director of Napa County (CA), will discuss an issue in Napa involving landmarks on agricultural lands that were destined to demolition by neglect due to restrictive zoning. The issue created a conflict between preservationists, who supported narrowly crafted ordinances that allow reasonable reuse of the landmarks, and some environmentalists, who were concerned with development on rural lands. Attorney Sara K. Hayden, who represented Napa County Landmarks, a non-profit preservation group that supported the ordinances, will discuss legal aspects of the matter, and of other case studies from across the United States where communities, through effective ordinances and policies, resolved apparent conflicts between preservation and conservation. Earthjustice attorney Melanie Kay will provide a federal view on bridging the gap between Section 106 and NEPA reviews and compliance. Stephen R. Miller, associate professor of law at the University of Idaho, College of Law, will moderate.

There are many other interesting panels that I think land use lawyers would enjoy, practitioner and professor alike, so check out the schedule at the link above.  Registration is much cheaper now than if you wait till later, which is another reason I'm posting about this now.  

Incidentally, if you go, I hear you MUST stay at the historic Davenport.  Hope to see you there!

Stephen R. Miller

August 10, 2012 in Historic Preservation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bronin & Byrne Casebook on Historic Preservation Law

Bronin byrne HPSara C. Bronin (Connecticut) and J. Peter Byrne (Georgetown) recently published a new casebook called Historic Preservation Law, Foundation Press 2012.  HP is quickly becoming a central part of land use planning, as the authors make clear in this excerpt from the Preface:

This book was written for anyone interested in the increasingly important area of historic preservation law.  With this book, we hope to advance and encourage the teaching of preservation law, shape the way the field is conceived, and create a practical resource that will be consulted by attorneys and other preservation professionals. 

Our approach to the subject is reasonably straightforward.  We present the most significant legal issues in preservation and place them in a contemporary context, identifying contested questions and areas of reform.  The format of the book is traditional: edited leading cases with notes that provide explanation, extension, and issues for discussion.  Given the interdisciplinary nature of the field, we belive that the legal issues can only be understood in light of historical, aesthetic, political, and administrative issues that make up the larger realm of preservation.  Accordingly, we provide secondary materials, both legal and non-legal.

Because we focus on preservation of buildings and sites, we present preservation as part of land use or urban development law.  Thus, we provide extensive treatment of local preservation law, which regulates private property, as well as relevant issues in real estate finance and project development.  We also provide comprehensive treatment of federal law, including the National Historical Preservation Act and related statutes.  In addition, we explore federal laws that address preservation vis-a-vis cultural property issues, particularly regarding Native American and archaelogical sites.  Preservation has also generated important and interesting constitutional questions related to takings, religious freedoms, and free speech rights, which we address.

This is the first, or at least the most recent, major casebook on the law of historic preservation that I know of.  Professors Bronin and Byrne, who are also accomplished scholars in the land use field generally, have provided us a major contribution with this book, which looks to be *the* significant text in HP law.  Land use scholars and professionals should definitely have this one on their shelves.

Matt Festa

August 9, 2012 in Constitutional Law, Development, Federal Government, Historic Preservation, History, Local Government, Property, Real Estate Transactions, Scholarship, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

CUNY’s CUER

There is a lot of exciting stuff going on at CUNY these days. Not only have they got themselves a shiny new campus in Long Island City, the just inaugurated their new Center for Urban and Environmental Reform (CUER –pronounced “cure”). Headed up by Rebecca Bratspies, this new center is one of the few places engaging specifically with urban environmental issues. Such an endeavor necessarily involves land use issues. I was lucky enough to be invited to CUER’s inaugural scholar workshop. Titled a “Scholar’s Workshop on Regulating the Urban Environment,” the event brought together scholars from multiple disciplines as well as activists and policy makers. It was an interesting format for an event and I enjoyed hearing from architects, historians, geographers and others. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of interesting events and endeavors from this new center. I know I will be keeping my eye on it.

Jessie Owley

July 14, 2012 in Community Economic Development, Density, Development, Downtown, Economic Development, Green Building, Historic Preservation, Housing, Local Government, New Urbanism, New York, Planning, Sustainability, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

In the Conservation Easement versus Mortgage Battle...

the mortgage wins. Because I am a conservation easement nerd savvy academic, I have Westlaw alert me every time a case mentions the term "conservation easement." For years, this yielded very few cases and I only received alerts once a month or so. Lately, I have been getting them daily. Many of these cases come from the tax court and have to do with valuation issues, one line of cases however explores mortgage subordination.

Conservation easements are nonpossessory interests in land that restrict a landowner's use of her property with a goal of yielding a conservation benefit. Many landowners donate conservation easements (i.e. voluntarily restrict the use of their property). Such donations can yield significant federal tax deductions. For a conservation easement (or historic preservation easement) to qualify for a charitable tax break, the restriction must be perpetual. The IRS, Tax Court, and others have acknowledged that it is well nigh impossible to ensure perpetuity of these things. Instead, the IRS has explained that it will consider a restriction to be perpetual if when the restriction is terminated, the beneficiary gets the proceeds. Basically, when a conservation easement is terminated (for any variety of reasons/methods), the holder of the conservation easement will get cash for its porportionate value. Ideally, the holder then uses that money to protect other lands. If your conservation easement doesn't have a provision detailing this procedure, the IRS (in theory) will disallow your deduction. To ensure that the holder will be able to get the proceeds from a land sale, the conservation easement holder must have primary rights to the proceeds. That is, other restrictions on the land must be subordinated (everyone else gets in line behind the conservation easement holder when proceeds from the sale are passed out). This is why the IRS requires any mortgages on the land to be subordinate to the conservation easement.

There have been a few cases from the tax court exploring this issue and most of them seem to involve historic facade easements. In Kaufman v. Commissioner (134 T.C. 182 Apr. 2010), the Tax Court concluded that a facade easement did not qualify for a tax deduction because it wasn't really perpetual because there was a non-subordinated mortgage encumbering the property. The landowners argued that the lack of subordination did not necessarily mean that the holder would not get its proceeds, but the court didn't care. There was a possibility that the facade easement holder would  not be able to receive the proportionate share.

Last week in Wall v. Commissioner (T.C. Memo. 2012-169, June 2012), the Tax Court reached a similar result even though the conservation easement (again a facade preservation easement) declared that it all exisiting mortgages were subordinate. The court did not take the conservation easement at its word and instead looked at the text of the mortgage subordination. The two banks involved executed documents appearing to subordinate the mortgages (based on the title and opening provisions of the documents), but a closer reading revealed that the banks still were claiming that they had "prior claims" in the event of any foreclosures or eminent domain proceedings. The presumption that the mortgages get first dibs at the moola stems mostly from the fact that they encumbered the land prior to the facade easement.

However, I think the main lesson here is that there is almost a presumption against the restrictions being perpetual and any possibility that the proportionate proceeds won't get paid to the conservation easement holder mean no tax deduction.

Jessica Owley

June 21, 2012 in Caselaw, Conservation Easements, Historic Preservation, Land Trust, Mortgages, Property, Real Estate Transactions, Servitudes | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

Memorial Day Houston National CemeteryToday was Memorial Day in the US.  There are lots of land use issues that we can associate with Memorial Day, which, stripped to its essence, is designed as a day to remember the military members who died in service to the nation.  There is the obvious land use issue of cemeteries, and the related legal and cultural norms governing how we memorialize the dead (check out any of the interesting blog posts or scholarship by Al Brophy and Tanya Marsh on cemeteries).  It gets even more relevant when we start talking about government-owned national or veterans' cemeteries, and the attendant controversies about First Amendment and other issues.  [The photo is from last year's Memorial Day ceremony at Houston National Cemetery, which my daughter attended to honor fallen Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Sauer Medlicott.]  Of course, there are always land use and local government issues involved with things like parades and public ceremonies, and in many communities there are specific rules that govern the "summer season" informally commenced on Memorial Day weekend.

For this post, though, I'll go back to the origins of the holiday.  Interestingly, it started as a private or quasi-public endeavor (perhaps like most civic affairs in the nineteenth century).  In the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War--and for much of the rest of the lives of the generations that fought it--Americans on both sides focused a great deal of attention on preserving its history and creating/controlling its public memory.  In 1868 General John Logan, head of the Union veterans' organization the Grand Army of the Republic (a private society with a great deal of government involvement), issued General Order No. 11, creating what became known as Decoration Day:

The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

Even though this Decoration Day was only adopted in Union states until after World War I (when it was renamed Memorial Day and formally associated with all American wars), the former Confederate states had their own versions to remember the war dead at cemeteries and public venues.  And according to eminent Yale historian David Blight, the first Memorial Day celebration was performed in Charleston, SC, by newly-liberated blacks:

Thousands of black Charlestonians, most former slaves, remained in the city and conducted a series of commemorations to declare their sense of the meaning of the war. The largest of these events, and unknown until some extraordinary luck in my recent research, took place on May 1, 1865. During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the planters' horse track, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, into an outdoor prison. Union soldiers were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of exposure and disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand. Some twenty-eight black workmen went to the site, re-buried the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, "Martyrs of the Race Course" . . . . Then, black Charlestonians in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged an unforgettable parade of 10,000 people on the slaveholders' race course. The symbolic power of the low-country planter aristocracy's horse track (where they had displayed their wealth, leisure, and influence) was not lost on the freedpeople.

Anyone interested in the contested history of these issues--with full attention to the negative aspects as well--should read the magnificent book by Prof. Blight (with a name like that, it's a shame he didn't go into land use!), Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.  And a related part of this history, along with the Decoration/Memorial Day commemorations, was the incipient historic preservation movement.  This confluence of impulses, as well as the also-new movement for environmental conservation, led to the novel idea of having the federal government acquire and administer large tracts of land for the purpose of preserving Civil War history.  As noted in the fascinating monograph by the late National Park Service Historian Ronald F. Lee, The Origin & Evolution of the National Military Park Idea, this was a new and not-uncontroversial exercise of government power over land use:

The idea of the Nation acquiring an entire battlefield and preserving it for historical purposes was new in 1890. It is therefore not surprising that it soon engendered a serious controversy, which arose, fittingly enough, at Gettysburg. The controversy involved two questions of fundamental importance to the future of historic preservation by the Federal Government. Is preserving and marking the site of an historic battlefield a public purpose and use? If so, is it a purpose for which Congress may authorize acquisition of the necessary land by power of eminent domain? The circumstances of this dispute, which had to be settled by the Supreme Court of the United States, are of unusual interest and provide an appropriate introduction to our story.

Lee describes the case, United States v. Gettysburg Electric Ry. Co., 160 U.S. 668 (1896), in the on-line version of the book provided by the NPS.  The case was brought by a railway which objected to the federal government's use of eminent domain to condemn their right of way for construction of a railway to take tourists to the significant "Devil's Den" area of the battlefield, "claiming that establishment of Gettysburg National Park was not a public purpose within the meaning of earlier legislation and that 'preserving lines of battle' and 'properly marking with tablets the positions occupied' were not public uses which permitted the condemnation of private property by the United States."  [What a long way from Kelo that was!]  Justice Rufus Peckham wrote for the unanimous majority in upholding the taking for preservation purposes (and not simply because members of the public could visit the park):

Such a use seems necessarily not only a public use, but one so closely connected with the welfare of the republic itself as to be within the powers granted Congress by the constitution for the purpose of protecting and preserving the whole country.

The Court thus established the constitutionality of taking land by the federal government for national parks, and struck an important legal blow for historic preservation generally.

So from cemeteries to public memory to national parks and historic preservation and much more, Memorial Day is tied to land use law in many ways.  I hope that our US readers have had a good one, and with remembrance for those whom the holiday commends.

Matt Festa

May 28, 2012 in Caselaw, Constitutional Law, Eminent Domain, Environmentalism, Federal Government, First Amendment, Historic Preservation, History, Houston, Politics, Property Rights, Race, Scholarship, State Government, Supreme Court, Takings | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What Would Jane Jacobs Do?

Regular readers know that we love the National Building Museum.  And any land use professional knows that we all love to talk about Jane Jacobs.  So here's an event that might be of great interest: Urban Forum: What Would Jane Jacobs Do?

Fifty one years after Jane Jacobs published her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her ideas on liveable, walkable, and diverse neighborhoods continue to impact how urban environments are designed. A panel discusses Jane Jacobs’ legacy, including urban renewal, historic preservation, mixed-use zoning, and public space. Light refreshments will be served.

Panelists include:

  • Bing Thom, Bing Thom Architects 
  • Harriet Tregoning, director, Washington D.C. Office of Planning 
  • Susan Szenasy, editor-in-chief, Metropolis Magazine (moderator) 
  • John Zuccotti, co-chairman of the board, Brookfield Properties Corporation and former Chairman of the New York City Planning Commission

Free (but required) registration is available for the event on Sunday, May 20, 2012 at 10:00-11:30.  Check it out!  If you are able to go to WWJJD, I'd love to hear about it.

Matt Festa

May 16, 2012 in Architecture, Density, Downtown, Historic Preservation, History, Houston, Lectures, New Urbanism, Planning, Politics, Property, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)