Conservation Easements

In Wendell Falls Development, LLC v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2018-45, the Tax Court denied a charitable contribution deduction for a taxpayer’s contribution of a conservation easement because the taxpayer expected to receive a substantial benefit from the donation.

The taxpayer purchased 27 contiguous parcels of unimproved land, comprising 1,280 acres. The taxpayer planned to subdivide the 1,280 acres into a master-planned community with residential areas, commercial spaces, an elementary school, and a park. The taxpayer would then sell the lots to builders.

The taxpayer identified 125 acres of the 1,280 acres as land upon which a park would be placed. The taxpayer and the County discussed the County acquiring the 125 acres for use as a county park. The taxpayer sought to ensure that the 125 acres would be restricted to park use and proposed placing a conservation easement on the 125 acres. Ultimately, the taxpayer and the County entered into a purchase agreement for the 125 acres, and placing a conservation easement on the land was a precondition to the sale. The taxpayer granted a conservation easement on the 125 acres in favor of a land trust and transferred ownership of the 125 acres to the County. The taxpayer claimed a charitable deduction for its contribution of the conservation easement on its tax return.

The issue here is the “substantial benefits” test. No deduction for a charitable contribution is allowed if the taxpayer expects a substantial benefit from the contribution. The taxpayer owned and intended to sell the 1,280 acres of land adjoining the 125 acres that was designated as park land. The taxpayer’s master-planned community was designed so that all residential areas would have access to the 125-acre park.  According to the Court, the taxpayer expected a substantial benefit from the donation because it sought to ensure that the 125 acres was restricted to park use, and as the prospective seller of the lots the taxpayer “would benefit from the increased value to the lots from the park as an amenity.” Because the taxpayer expected a substantial benefit from the donation, the Court disallowed the charitable deduction. (Note: alternatively, the Court determined that the value of the easement was zero because the park land did not diminish the value of the 125 acres).

August brought three wins for taxpayers who donated conservation easements that were challenged by the IRS.  In all of the cases, terms of the conservation easement deed document carried the day. 

  • In BC Ranch II, L.P. v. Comm’r, No. 16-60068, 2017 BL 282040 (5th Cir. Aug. 11, 2017), the Fifth Circuit overturned a Tax Court decision finding that an easement deed allowing for small boundary adjustments violated the perpetuity requirement of Section 170(h)(2)(C).  The perpetuity requirement provides that, in order to qualify for a charitable contribution deduction for a conservation easement donation, a taxpayer must restrict, in perpetuity, the use which may be made of the real property.  The Fifth Circuit held that the Tax Court’s reliance in Belk  v. Comm’r, 140 T.C 1 (2013), aff’d 774 F.3d 2210 (4th Cir. 2014), to hold that the conservation easement restrictions violated the perpetuity requirement was misplaced because Belk involved a provision where the easement land could be substituted in its entirety for a new parcel of land.  The Fifth Circuit looked at similar cases where small adjustments to the easement were permitted to promote the underlying conservation purpose.  Because that was the case here, the court found that the perpetuity requirement was met.  Addressing the IRS alternative theory that the partners entered into disguised sales for partnership property, the court also determined that the portions of capital contributions made by partners, other than those attributable to the parcels that were distributed to them, were not disguised sales of partnership assets.  
  • Next, in 310 Retail, LLC, v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo 2017-164, and Big River Development, L.P. v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo 2017-166, the Tax Court held that the conservation easement deeds at issue met the contemporary written acknowledgement requirement set forth in Section 170(f)(8)(B).  The contemporary written acknowledgement provision requires that, in order to claim a charitable contribution deduction, the donor is required to obtain from the charity a written statement that describes the donation, states whether the charity provides goods and services in exchange for the donation, and, if goods and services were provided, the fair market value of those goods and service.  This documentation must be obtained before the earlier of the due date of the return or the date the return in filed.  In both cases, the donor did not obtain from the charity separate documentation that is traditionally sent to donees with this specific language.  However, because the conservation easement deeds contained language discussing the consideration given and stating that the deed was the complete agreement of the parties (known as a merger clause), the deed itself acknowledged that the charity did not provide goods and services to the donor and therefore satisfied the contemporaneous written acknowledgement requirements. 
  • In all three cases, while the taxpayers now presumably have established the right to claim the charitable contribution deduction, the next step of determining the value of the conservation easement will be a separate battle.