Quality appraisals are still key to conservation easement donation deductions. In Costello v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2015-87, the Tax Court held that the taxpayers did not submit a “qualified appraisal” within the meaning of IRC § 170(f)(11)(E)(1) and upheld the substantial valuation misstatement penalties imposed on the taxpayers for the 2006, 2007, and 2008 tax years.
The taxpayers own a farm in Howard County, Maryland. Howard County uses a density exchange program in which each property has a certain number of development rights that may be sold to another developer of property, referred to as a “density exchange option.” Each development right essentially equates to one additional residence that a developer can build on a given property. In order to sell their development rights to a third party, the landowner must grant an easement to Howard County.
In 2006, the taxpayers granted the county a land preservation easement on their property. The taxpayers sold 16 of their 17 available development rights to a developer for a total purchase price of $2.56 million. Upon recordation of the deed of easement on October 17, 2006 all future development was prohibited on the taxpayers’ farm with the exception of farming.
The taxpayers obtained an appraisal on July 1, 2007. The appraisal assumed they could purchase eight additional development rights and the highest and best use of the subdivision would be a subdivision with 25 homes. The appraiser estimated a fair market value of $7.69 million before the sale of the development rights and gauged the fair market value of the property after the sale of the development rights at $2.1 million.
The taxpayers’ appraisal stated the assumption that the property was “free and clear of any and all liens or encumbrances” as of December 1, 2006. The appraisal did not account for the $2.56 million that the taxpayers received from the developer and the easement granted to the county in exchange for 16 of their 17 available development rights.
Additionally, the taxpayers’ 2007 appraisal omitted a number of required items, including an accurate description of the property contributed, the date of the contribution, or the terms of agreement. It also did not use the words “conservation easement” or “land preservation easement.” Judge Lauber concluded that the appraiser was not aware of the deed of easement that the taxpayer’s transferred to Howard County.
The donee (Howard County) did not sign the appraisal summary, as required under Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13(c)(4)(i)(B), because it had serious doubts about the taxpayer’s ability to take a charitable contribution deduction. At the taxpayers’ request, the appraiser prepared an addendum on March 25, 2008 taking into account the $2.56 million that the taxpayer’s received for their development rights in 2006. The addendum reduced the taxpayers’ noncash charitable contribution to $3,004,692.
An official from Howard County signed off on the addendum and the taxpayers filed an amended 2006 return on May 16, 2008. The taxpayers’ claimed a charitable contribution deduction of $1,058,643 on their amended 2006 return, $1,666,528 on their 2007 return, and the remaining $278,521 on their 2008 return.
The IRS issued a notice of deficiency for all three years on July 13, 2012 disallowing the charitable contribution deductions in full and assessing accuracy-related penalties. The notice of deficiency also disallowed like-kind exchange treatment on the sale of the development rights and deductions claimed for business use of the home. The taxpayers’ timely petitioned the Tax Court challenging the disallowance of the charitable contribution deductions, asserting a higher basis on the sale of the development rights, and disputing the accuracy-related penalties.
At trial, Judge Lauber did not consider the taxpayer’s addendum to the appraisal because it was made more than five months after the due date (including extensions) of the taxpayer’s 2006 return. Under Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13(c)(3)(i)(A) to be “qualified” an appraisal must be made no more than 60 days before the contribution and no later than the due date (including extensions) of the return on which the charitable deduction is first claimed.
The taxpayers argued for application of the substantial compliance doctrine under Bond v. Commissioner, 100 T.C. 32 (1993) and Hewitt v. Commissioner, 109 T.C. 258 (1997). Judge Lauber held that the numerous defects and missing categories in the taxpayers’ appraisal prevented the taxpayers’ from successfully asserting substantial compliance. Judge Lauber further opined that even if the court assumed substantial compliance, the contribution was part of a quid pro quo exchange as defined in Hernandez v. Commissioner, 490 U.S. 680 (1989), because the taxpayers could not legally sell the development rights without first granting an easement to Howard County.
The Court also dismissed the taxpayers’ contention that the transaction was a bargain sale because once the taxpayers signed the contract to sell their development rights, they had no excess development potential to grant Howard County through a bargain sale.
In sum, the Court held that the appraisal “failed to inform the IRS of the essence of the transaction in which petitioner’s engaged.” Thus, the appraisal was not a qualified appraisal under Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-13(c)(3)(i).
Judge Lauber also denied the taxpayers’ reasonable cause defense to the application of the 20% substantial valuation misstatement penalties under IRC § 6662(b)(3) for all three-tax years because the taxpayers did not get a qualified appraisal under IRC § 170(f)(11)(E)(1).
Read the full opinion here: Costello v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2015-87 (2015)