Tax Court Denies Texas Conservation Easement

Last week we wrote about the Tax Court’s application of Belk v. Commissioner, 140 T.C. 1 (2013) in the Bosque Canyon Ranch case. Here’s a more detailed description of the case.

BCRBosque Canyon Ranch (“BCR”) is a 3,729 acre-tract in Bosque County, Texas. Petitioners formed BCR I, a Texas limited partnership, in July 2003. BCR I made $2.2 million in improvements to BC Ranch between 2003 and 2005.

In 2004, BCR I began marketing limited partnership interest (“LP units”) at $350,000 per unit. Each purchaser would become a limited partner in BCR I and the partnership would subsequently distribute a fee simple interest in a five-acre parcel of property (the “Homesite parcel”) to that limited partner. Each Homesite Parcel owner had the right to build a house on the parcel and use BC Ranch for various activities. The distribution of Homesite Parcels was conditioned on BCR I granting a conservation easement to the North American Land Trust (“NALT”) for 1,750 acres of BC Ranch.

BCR I granted the conservation easement to NALT on December 29, 2005.  The land subject to the conservation easement could not be used for residential, commercial, institutional, industrial, or agricultural purposes. BCR I had 24 LP purchasers in 2005 with payments totaling $8,400,000. BCR I obtained a certified appraisal report effective November 28, 2005, valuing the conservation easement at $8,400,000.

BCR II was formed in December 2005 as a Texas limited partnership and BCR I deeded 1,866 acres of BC Ranch to BCR II.  In 2006, BCR II began marketing Homesite parcels with offering documents were substantially similar to that of BCR I. BCR II granted NALT a conservation easement on September 14, 2007.  BCR II collected payments of $9,957,500 from 23 purchasers and obtained an appraisal valuing the 2007 easement at $7,500,000.

After all of the transfers, the 47 limited partners of BCR I and BCR II owned approximately 235 acres and 3,482 of the remaining 3,509 acres were subject to the 2005 and 2007 NALT easements.

Procedural History

BCR I filed a 2005 Form 1065 reporting capital contributions of $8,400,000 and claiming an $8,400,000 charitable contribution deduction related to the 2005 NALT easement. The IRS sent petitioner a 2005 FPAA on December 29, 2008, determining that BCR I was not entitled to a charitable contribution deduction. The IRS also determined that petitioners were subject to either accuracy-related or gross valuation misstatement penalties. IRS counsel submitted an amended answer on April 26, 2010, contending that the BCR I transactions at issue were sales of real property.

BCR II filed a 2007 Form 1065 reporting capital contributions of $9,956,500 and claiming an $7,500,000 charitable contribution deduction related to the 2007 NALT easement. The IRS sent petitioner a 2007 FPAA on August 23, 2011, determining that BCR II was not entitled to a charitable contribution deduction and that petitioners were subject to either accuracy-related or gross valuation misstatement penalties. IRS counsel did not allege that the BCR II transactions were sales of real property. The Court consolidated petitioners’ cases for trial.

Charitable Contribution Deductions

The Homesite parcel owners and the NALT could, by mutual agreement, modify the Homesite boundaries. The deed forbids a decrease in “the overall property subject to the easement” and changes in the “exterior boundaries of the property subject to the easement.” The deed also provides that the boundary changes only occur between unburdened parcels (the Homesite lots).

The Court found that the property protected by the 2005 and 2007 easements could lose this protection as a result of boundary modifications allowed after the easements were granted. Citing Belk v. Commissioner, 140 T.C. 1 (2013), the Court held that the restrictions were not granted in perpetuity as required under IRC § 170(h)(2)(C) because the 2005 and 2007 deeds allow modifications between the Homesite parcels and the property subject to the easements. Thus, the easements are not qualified real property interests required under IRC § 170(h)(1)(A). (There are some distinct factual differences from Belk that we noted in an earlier post found here).

Judge Foley also took issue with the lack of documentation establishing the condition of the property provided by petitioners to NALT as required by Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-14(g)(5)(i). The Court found that the documentation was “unreliable, incomplete, and insufficient to establish the condition of the relevant property on the date the respective easements were granted.”

Disguised Sale

Judge Foley found that the partnerships deeded the Homesite properties to the limited partners within five months of the limited partners’ payments for the property. Under Treas. Reg. 1.707-3(c)(1) and 1.707-6(a) transfers between a partnership and a partner within a two-year period are presumed to be a sale of the property to the partner unless the facts and circumstances clearly establish that the transfers do not constitute a sale.

Petitioners argued that the partners’ payments would be at risk, pursuant to the terms of the LP agreements, if the easements were not granted. The Court rejected this argument based on its finding that the 2005 and 2007 easements were granted prior to the execution of the BCR I and BCR II LP agreements, respectively.  Thus, the Court held that BCR I and BCR II were required to recognize income on any gains related to the 24 and 23 disguised sales by each limited partnership, respectively.

Gross Valuation Misstatement Penalties

Judge Foley held that the petitioners were liable for a 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty under IRC § 6662(h). Petitioner’s argued that they acted reasonably and in good faith by procuring a qualified appraisal from a qualified appraiser and by relying on a memorandum from their CPA.  Judge Foley found that while these actions constituted a good faith investigation of the easement’s value, BCR I did not provide NALT with sufficient documentation of the condition of the property being donated and affirmed the 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty against BCR I for 2005.

For returns filed after August 17, 2006, the gross valuation misstatement penalty is modified by Treas. Reg. § 1.6662-5(g) when the determined value of the property is zero and the value claimed is greater than zero. Additionally, taxpayers who file returns after 2006 can no longer claim a reasonable cause defense for gross valuation misstatements relating to charitable contribution deductions. (Though reasonable cause is still a valid defense for substantial valuation misstatements. See, IRC § 6664(c)(3).) Thus, the Court held that BCR II is liable for the 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty relating to the 2007 tax year.

Read the full opinion here: Bosque Canyon Ranch L.P., v. Commissioner, TC-Memo. 2015-130

Tax Court Denies Conservation Easement Donation on Qualified Appraisal

farms_ag_howard_countyQuality 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)

Fourth Circuit Affirms the Tax Court on Conservation Easement Donation

US-CourtOfAppeals-4thCircuit-SealOn December 16, 2014, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the U.S. Tax Court’s ruling in Belk v. Commissioner, 140 T.C. No. 1 (2013).  We previously discussed the Tax Court’s decision here.

In Belk, the taxpayers donated a conservation easement over a 184 acre golf course and claimed a $10.5 million deduction on their 2004 tax return. The conservation easement agreement executed by the parties included a provision which allowed the taxpayers to substitute the property subject to the easement with “an area of land owned by Owner which is contiguous to the Conservation Area for an equal or lesser area of land comprising a portion of the Conservation Area.”

The IRS challenged the validity of the entire donation on the grounds that the real property interest (i.e., the golf course) was not donated in perpetuity because the substitution provision allowed it to be replaced by another property. The IRS argued that the substitution provision violated the requirement that the contribution be an interest in real property that is subject to a perpetual use restriction under IRC §170(h)(2)(C).

The Tax Court held that the donation made by the taxpayers did not constitute a “qualified real property interest” under §170(h)(2)(C) because the conservation easement agreement allowed for substitution of the contributed property. The Tax Court found that the donated property was not subject to a use restriction in perpetuity but in fact was subject to the restriction only so long as the substitution provision in the agreement was not exercised. Accordingly, the charitable donation did not meet the requirements of §170(h) and the deduction was denied in full.

The taxpayers appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether the easement agreement’s substitution provision prevented the easement from being a donation of “qualified real property interest” under § 170(h)(2)(C).  The taxpayers argued that IRC § 170(h)(2)(C) requires a restriction in perpetuity on some real property, not necessarily the real property considered in the original easement agreement.  They argued that easement satisfied this requirement because the substitution provision requires that any property removed from the easement must be replaced by property of equal value that is subject to the same use restrictions.

The Fourth Circuit considered the plain language of IRC § 170(h)(2)(C), specifically, that a “qualified real property interest” includes “a restriction (granted in perpetuity) on the use which may be made of the real property.”  The Court particularly focused on the use of “the” real property as opposed to “some” or “any” real property.

Relying on two recent taxpayer favorable decisions, Kaufman v. Shulman, 687 F.3d 21 (1st Cir. 2012) and Simmons v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2009-208 aff’d. 646 F.3d 6 (D.C. Cir. 2011), the taxpayers argued that courts have approved deductions for conservation easements that put the perpetuity requirement at “far greater risk” than the substitution clause considered here.  The Court distinguished this case from Kaufman and Simmons because they considered the requirement that the conservation purpose be protected in perpetuity under IRC § 170(h)(5)(A).  Here, IRC § 170(h)(2)(C) regulates the grant of the property itself, not its subsequent enforcement.

The Court also rejected other taxpayer arguments based on state law and a savings clause contained in the easement document that would negate the substitution clause if it would result in the conservation easement failing to qualify under IRC § 170(h).  Citing Procter v. Commissioner, 142 F.2d 824 (4th Cir. 1944), the Court held that “when a savings clause provides that a future event alters the tax consequences of a conveyance, the savings clause imposes a condition subsequent and will not be enforced.”

In the end, the Fourth Circuit held that while the conservation purpose of the easement was perpetual, the use restriction on “the” real property is not in perpetuity because the taxpayers could remove land from the defined parcel and replace it with other land. The Court held that allowing the taxpayers to substitute property would enable them to bypass several other requirements of IRC § 170, including IRC § 170(f)(11)(D) requiring the taxpayers to get a qualified appraisal prior to claiming the charitable deduction.

Read the full opinion here: Belk v. Commissioner, No. 13-2161 (4th Cir. 2014)

Record Your Easement: Tax Court Adjusts Timing & Valuation of New York Facade Easement

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonIn Zarlengo v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-161, the Tax Court held that a New York facade easement is not protected in perpetuity under IRC § 170(h)(5)(A) until the easement is recorded.  The Court followed its decision in Rothman v. Commissioner, TC Memo 2012-163 and New York state law, specifically NY. Env. Law § 49-0305(4), requiring that a “conservation easement shall be duly recorded and indexed as such in the office of the recording officer for the county or counties where the land is situate in the manner prescribed by article nine of the real property law.”  The Court disallowed the charitable deduction taken in the year before the easement was properly recorded and all carryover deductions from that year.

The taxpayer found some success with their appraisal and valuation experts, as they were able to keep a portion of the charitable deduction claimed after the easement was properly recorded.  They were also able to avoid accuracy-related penalties for years prior to the Pension Protection Act of 2006 by presenting a successful reasonable cause defense.

Read the full opinion here: Zarlengo v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-161

Reliance on Tax Attorney & Licensed Appraiser Helps Taxpayer Preserve Deductions & Avoid Penalties

us_tax_courtIn Palmer Ranch v. Commissioner, a TEFRA partnership avoided accuracy-related penalties even though the Tax Court reduced the fair market value of its conservation easement by $3.98 million.

The taxpayer claimed a $23.94 million charitable contribution deduction on its 2006 partnership return. The IRS disallowed $16.97 million of the value under exam. At trial, the parties presented valuation experts who relied upon the comparable sales method to set the before and after value of the property. The taxpayer’s expert valued the land at $307,000 per acre, while the IRS expert came in at at $94,000 per acre. The Tax Court reviewed the four properties used by both experts and compared the property’s then-current use with its highest and best use. The taxpayers’ contended that 360 multifamily dwelling units could be developed on the 82-acre parcel. The IRS disagreed, emphasizing: a failed rezoning history; environmental concerns; limited access to outside roads; and neighborhood opposition. The Court rejected each of these arguments and found that “there is a reasonable probability that [the parcel] could have been successfully rezoned to allow for the development of multifamily dwellings.”

The IRS also argued that the real estate market was softening in 2006. Judge Goeke accepted the idea of a declining real estate market and reduced the taxpayer’s pre-encumbrance appraisal of the land from $25.2 million to $21 million. Using the same “after” value percentage (5% of the unencumbered property) the Court found that the fair market value of the conservation easement was $19.96 million.

Following the framework set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in United States v. Woods, the Court determined that it had jurisdiction to consider the IRC § 6662 penalties. The Court then accepted the taxpayers’ reasonable cause defense and disallowed the 20% penalty because the taxpayer: retained a tax attorney to advise them on the tax aspects of the easement donation; hired a credible, licensed appraiser, and made a good-faith attempt to determine the easement value.

Read the Tax Court opinion here: Palmer Ranch v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-79

Tax Court Rejects Expert Value, Imposes Penalties

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonIn what may be the last word on Kaufman v. Commissioner, the Tax Court sustained the IRS’s complete disallowance of charitable deductions claimed for the donation of a façade easement. The case returned to the Tax Court on remand from the First Circuit Court of Appeals to determine the value of the easement and the application of accuracy-related penalties.

The taxpayers’ owned a 150 year-old row house in a designated historic district in Boston, Massachusetts subject to the South End Landmark District Residential Standards (“South End Standards”). In 2003, taxpayers’ entered into an agreement with the NAT to donate a façade easement over the property. The taxpayers contacted an appraiser, recommended by NAT, who appraised the value of the easement. The appraisal concluded that the total loss of value, including the easement and the value of the unused development rights, was $220,800. The taxpayers deducted that amount on their 2004 and 2005 tax returns as a charitable donation of a qualified conservation easement. The Commissioner challenged the deductions with a statutory notice of deficiency.

In Kaufman v. Commissioner, 134 T.C. 182 (2010) (Kaufman I), the Tax Court ruled for the IRS in a motion for partial summary judgment. The Court held that the conservation easement failed to satisfy the “in perpetuity” requirements of the Treasury Regulations. The Court then issued a second opinion making additional findings, disallowing other items and imposing penalties on the remaining issues (Kaufman II). The taxpayers’ appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected the Tax Court’s ruling that the taxpayers’ mortgage lender agreement undercut the regulation’s “in perpetuity” requirement as a matter of law (Kaufmann III) and remanded for further consideration of the taxpayers’ charitable contribution deductions under the facts.

The primary issue on remand was the proper valuation of the façade easement. The taxpayers’ valuation expert used a sales comparison analysis with data from three comparable properties. Using the before-and-after method, he determined that the value of the property was $1,840,000 before the grant of the easement. The expert used a “method unique to him and not a generally accepted appraisal or valuation method” to determine that the total value of the property was reduced by 12% or $220,800 when encumbered by the façade easement.

The IRS’s expert discredited the taxpayer’s valuation stating that it was “the fruit of an inappropriate valuation methodology employing a wholly unsupported adjustment factor.” Notably, both the IRS expert and the taxpayer’s expert agreed, “neither the preservation agreement nor the preexisting restrictions hamper the potential for developing the property to its highest and best use…as a single family home.”

The Tax Court gave no weight to the taxpayers’ expert because of his close relationship with NAT, his limited experience appraising façade easements, and his use of a “unique” valuation methodology. The Court also conducted its own comparison of the façade easement restrictions and the South End Standards. The Tax Court found that the agreements were “basically duplicative” and there were no significant additional restrictions placed on the property by the façade easement.

The Court held in favor of the IRS finding that the façade easement had no fair market value when conveyed to NAT. The Tax Court also upheld the IRS’s imposition of accuracy-related penalties.

Read the full opinion here: Kaufman v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-52

North Dakota Conservation Easements Prohibited by State Law

us_tax_courtIn a case that highlights the potential conflict between state law and the requirements for the deductible donation of a conservation easement, the Tax Court in Wachter v. Commissioner held that a North Dakota conservation easement failed the “in perpetuity” requirement under IRC § 170(h)(2)(C) because North Dakota state law limits the duration of an easement to 99 years.

The taxpayers, comprised of two sets of couples filing joint returns for the tax years in question, owned varying interests in two partnerships, WW Ranch and Wind River, LLC. The partnerships entered into a cooperative agreement with the Commodity Credit Corporation and the American Foundation for Wildlife to sell conservation easements on multiple parcels from 2004 through 2006.

The taxpayers made three cash gifts to the North Dakota Natural Resource Trust (NRT) totaling $485,650 from 2004-2006. On its partnership returns, WW Ranch reported bargain sales of conservation easements as charitable contributions of $349,000 for 2004, $247,550 for 2005, and $162,500 for 2006. The parties obtained two appraisals to each contributed parcel. Each appraisal valued the property according to a different land use, and the taxpayers used the difference in appraised values to determine the value of the conservation easements.

The IRS issued notices of deficiency disallowing the charitable contribution deductions for both the cash payments to NRT and the property contributions. The IRS filed a motion for partial summary judgment.

Under IRC § 170(h)(1) a contribution of real property is a qualified conservation contribution if:

  1. The property is a “qualified property interest”,
  2. The contributee is a “qualified organization”, and
  3. The contribution is “exclusively for conservation purposes.”

The IRS argued that because the North Dakota state law restricts easements to 99 years the conservation easements cannot satisfy the first and third requirements of IRC § 170(h)(1). The parties agreed that the state law here is unique; it is the only state with a statute that provides for a maximum duration that may not be overcome by agreement.

Under IRC 170(h)(2)(c) a “qualified property interest” means “a restriction (granted in perpetuity) on the use which may be made of the real property. The taxpayers argued that the possibility that the land would revert back to them, WW Ranch, or their successors in interest is the same as a remote future event under Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-14(g)(3) that will not prevent the easements from being perpetual.

A remote future event under Treas. Reg. § 1.170A-14(g)(3) if “on the date of the gift it appears that the possibility that such act or event will occur is so remote as to be negligible.” The Tax Court cited its opinion in 885 Inv. Co. v. Commissioner, defining “so remote as to be negligible” as “a chance which persons generally would disregard as so highly improbable that it might be ignored with reasonable safety in undertaking a serious business transaction.”

The Court granted partial summary judgment on the conservation easement issue in favor of the IRS finding that “on the dates of the donations it was not only possible, it was inevitable that AFW would be divested of its interests in the easements by operation of North Dakota law.” The case will continue to trial on the deductibility of cash contributions to NRT.

Read the full opinion here: Wachter v. Commissioner, 142 T.C. No. 7

Tax Court Denies Taxpayers’ Second Attempt to Avoid Penalties

us_Tax_Court_fasces-with-red-ribbonIn Mountanos v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-38, the Tax Court denied the taxpayer’s request to consider alternative grounds for disallowing deductions conservation easement conveyance. The taxpayer sought to avoid 40% accuracy-related penalties assessed on the disallowance of the deductions in Mountanos v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2013-138 (Mountanos I) (see our Summer 2013 newsletter).

In Mountanos I, the taxpayer claimed a $4.9 million deduction return for conveying a conservation easement to the Golden State Land Conservancy. The IRS challenged the easement on multiple grounds, including valuation. The Tax Court found that the conservation easement had no value because the conveyance had no effect on the “highest and best use” of the property. The Court did not consider the respondent’s alternative arguments and imposed a 40% gross valuation misstatement penalty.

The taxpayer filed a motion seeking reconsideration of the Court’s decision on the 40% penalty. Relying on prior opinions of the court, the taxpayer argued that the Court should consider alternative grounds that the taxpayer fails to concede as the basis for calculating the penalty.

The Tax Court denied the taxpayer’s motion for reconsideration of the penalties because it would allow the taxpayer to “take two bites at the same apple.” Judge Kroupa also questioned the viability of the cases relied upon by the taxpayers in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Woods. Woods rejected the taxpayer’s reliance on the “Blue Book” formula in an attempt to avoid the gross valuation misstatement penalty.

Read the full opinion here: Mountanos v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2014-38

Tax Court Reasserts Position on Conservation Easements

Opining on a motion for reconsideration, the Tax Court has reaffirmed the circumstances under which a conservation easement might be extinguished without violating the regulatory requirement that the donation be made in perpetuity. Asked to account for an intervening change in the law based on First Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in Kaufman v. Shulman, the Court declined to change its earlier decision in Carpenter v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2012-1.

In the matter under reconsideration, the parties reserved the right to extinguish the conservation easement by mutual agreement. Under those circumstances, the donee organization would have received its proportionate share of the proceeds following removal of the easement. The taxpayers argued that these circumstances met the in perpetuity “safe harbor” under Treas. Reg. Sec. 1.170A- 14(g)(6)(i) for terminated conservation easements.

The Court disagreed and emphasized that “extinguishment by judicial proceedings is necessary” to satisfy the regulation and that a proportionate share reserved for the donee organization is not an adequate substitute for guaranteeing the donation in perpetuity. The Court also reminded the taxpayers that in cases appealable to Federal Courts of Appeals that had not ruled on the issue – as was the case here – the First Circuit’s decision is not binding on the Tax Court.

Read the entire opinion here:
Carpenter v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2013-172

Government Denied Summary Judgment in Conservation Easement Case

white-cloud-wilderness-idahoThe U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho recently rejected the government’s pre-trial motion for summary judgment on the validity of a conservation easement donation, setting the stage for a trial on the facts of the transaction.

The District Court’s order and decision provides another ray of hope for Alan Pesky’s efforts to preserve his charitable contribution deduction for the conservation easement donation he made in 2002. Mr. Pesky has already been through a series of pre-trial motions. While this decision should have him headed for trial on the merits of the tax deductions for his donation, as we note below, the government has lobbed yet another missive over the transom.

The facts of the Pesky case are complicated but not necessarily unusual among high-net worth individuals with substantial real estate holdings who find themselves approached about a conservation easement donation. In stark summary, Alan Pesky was approached by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to acquire a parcel over which a conservation easement ultimately was granted to TNC. The acquisition involved a series of negotiations and collateral agreements which may or may not prove to be relevant in sustaining the deduction.

When the donation was complete, Mr. Pesky deducted a portion of the conservation easement donation on his 2002 tax return and carried forward the remainder on his 2003 and 2004 returns. The government has challenged the charitable deductions for all three years but had to assert fraud for the 2002 tax year because it failed to issue a notice of deficiency within the three-year statute of limitations. The government made additional assertions of fraud which were addressed in this order (and elsewhere).

This case is a fine example of the Government’s recent approach to conservation easement litigation. The government wants to win early dismissal of these cases on pre-trials motions without allowing an examination of the facts and is willing to renew and recycle arguments that have failed before and been flat out rejected in other Federal circuits.

The government moved for summary judgment based on three primary arguments. The first argument was that the conservation easement was part of a larger quid pro quo transaction between the taxpayers and TNC.  This argument has been considered in this context by the Tax Court in at least one reported decision but under substantially different facts than these.  Considering the factors that might influence a jury on this question, the U.S. District Court ruled that a genuine issue of material fact remained for consideration at trial and denied the government’s motion.

The government’s second argument was that there was no contemporaneous written acknowledgement of goods and services received. Though the government conceded the existence of such an acknowledgment, its argument was an extension of the quid pro quo position, i.e., that there was no charitable intent. The court also rejected the argument based on the potential for a genuine issue of material fact.  One might argue though that the taxpayer should prevail based on the substantial compliance doctrine adopted in Simmons v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2009-208 aff’d. 646 F.3d 6 (D.C. Cir. 2011).

Finally, the government argued that donation should fail because the Pesky’s property appraisal did not meet the standard for a qualified appraisal standard in the regulations. Again, the District Court leaned on potential for a genuine issue of material facts to deny the government’s motion.  Given the minimum threshold standard for a qualified appraisal set forth by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Scheidelman v. Commissioner, 682 F.3d 189 (2d Cir. 2012), the taxpayers should also prevail on this issue.

In all events, the court rejected all three of the government’s arguments.  The persistence of the government, however, should not be denied. Despite the court’s rejection of their positions just last Monday, the government had already filed a motion for reconsideration of the order on Friday requesting that the court take yet another look at these well-worn arguments.  The Pesky’s might yet have their day in court, but not before they cross a few more hurdles the government intends to through in the way.

Read the Order Denying the Government’s Motion for Summary Judgement here:
Pesky Order 7.8.13

Read the Government’s Motion for Reconsideration here:
Pesky Motion for Reconsideration 7.12.13