The IRS has been cracking down on conservation easement transactions for over ten years. Nevertheless, taxpayers have continued to claim charitable contribution deductions attributable to the donation of conservation easements and promoters have continued to assemble investments utilizing conservation easement charitable deductions. The IRS began focusing on syndicated conservation easement transactions when it issued Notice 2017-10, designating syndicated conservation easement transactions as listed transactions. These syndicated investments involve the use of partnerships to raise funds from investors, who are allocated a share of a charitable contribution deduction attributable to conservation easements donated on land owned by the partnership. In fall of 2018, the IRS doubled down on its attacks of these investments when syndicated conservation easements were added to the list of LB&I compliance campaigns. While the IRS continues to crack down on these arrangements, taxpayers have continued litigating the finer points of these transactions. On the flipside, DOJ has begun cracking down on promoters who market these transactions. Below are details on the most recent developments.

Pine Mountain Preserve v. Comm’r

This case involves three conservation easements covering various portions of an assemblage of over 2,000 acres of land. The land was located in what sounds like a beautiful location in Alabama for development of recreational and horse properties. Over three years, three different easements were granted on various portions of 1,300 of the 2,000 acres. The first two easements reserved the right to allow for small parcels of development, in a location to be agreed upon between the property owner and the charity holding the easement.

Relying on its prior rulings in Belk v. Comm’r, 140 T.C. 1 (2013), supplemented by T.C. Memo. 2013-154, aff’d 774 F.3d 221 (4th Cir. 2014) and Bosque Canyon Ranch v. Comm’r, T.C. Memo. 2015-130, vacated and remanded sub nom. 867 F.3d 547 (5th Cir. 2017), the court determined that the first two easements did not a qualified real property interest due to the uncertainty created by the reservation to create pockets of development on the property subject to the conservation easement. [We note that the Tax Court was not persuaded by the Fifth Circuit opinion in Bosque Canyon and declined to follow it since this case is not appealable to the Fifth Circuit.] However, while the third easement contained a reservation for installing a water tower, it did not allow for the parties to choose after the easement areas for development within the easement area. Thus, the third easement was determined to be a qualified real property interest.

Valuation of the third easement was discussed in a Memorandum opinion issued simultaneously with the full Tax Court opinion addressing the validity of the easement. The court found the taxpayer’s expert overvalued the potential development of the property in determining the value of the easement but that the IRS expert undervalued the easement by ignoring the development potential of the property. The court went to great lengths to discuss in detail the misgivings of both valuation expert’s opinions but the result for the taxpayer was not horrible. In the end, the court valued the easement based on 50% of the value determined by both experts. Considering this meant a $4.8 million charitable contribution deduction was allowed, this was not a total loss for the taxpayer.

Wendell Falls v. Comm’r

Sometimes developers want open space or a park included in a master plan for a residential community as a way to make the community more desirable. In that instance, because the developer expects to benefit as a result of the easement, the law does not allow a charitable contribution deduction, essentially because the contribution lacks donative intent or because the donation lacks value when weighed against the value of the expected benefit. This is exactly what happened in Wendell Falls. Here, a developer chose to place an easement on a parcel of land after it had already designed the parcel as a park in the master plan. In April of 2018, the court determined that because the highest and best use of the eased parcel was as a park, as outlined in the developer’s master plan, the easement requiring it to be preserved as a park did not diminish its value, therefore the easement had no value. However, the court did determine that the taxpayer was not subject to penalties.

The taxpayer asked the court to reconsider several of its findings, arguing that the court should have considered the value of the easement and separately considered the value of the enhancement to the donor’s property separately. The taxpayer also asserted that the receipt of a substantial benefits did not alone result in denial of a deduction and that the highest and best use of the parcel was for development rather than a park, attempting to get the court to reconsider values. On November 20, 2018, the court issued its opinion that the value of the substantial benefit expected was in excess of the value of the easement, and that parkland was the highest and best use of the property based on the proposed development. Unfortunately, the taxpayer lost all of its $1.8 million charitable contribution deduction.

Lawsuits against Promoters

The government had has enlisted another tactic for shutting down conservation easements by bringing actions against the organizers of conservation easement syndication schemes. On December 28, 2018, the Department of Justice filed a compliant in the Northern District of Georgia asserting that a group of defendants assembled partnership which were “nothing more than a thinly veiled sale of grossly overvalued federal tax deductions under the guise of investing in a partnership.” The complaint asserts that the defendants’ conservation easement syndicates have generated $2 billion in conservation easement charitable contribution deductions. The complaint seeks to enjoin the defendants from continuing to promote such schemes, and asks the court to order the defendants to disgorge all profits received as a result of the conservation easement syndicates.

The defendants include a conservation manager/broker dealer, an appraiser, and various professionals associated with EcoVest Capital, Inc., an entity that sponsors real estate investments focused on conservation. The promotional materials mentioned in the compliant set forth an example where in exchange for a $750,000 investment, an investor would receive $2 million of deductions, generating tax savings of $1 million. The syndicates were sold as securities exempt from registration through broker-dealers. The easement syndicates involved properties located in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Caroline, Tennessee, and Texas.

Any taxpayer who may have invested in a syndicated conservation easement through Ecovest or any other investment advisor should carefully review Notice 2017-10 and related the disclosure requirements for listed transactions. Those taxpayers should also consult with a tax attorney to consider strategies for mitigating any damages.

For more up-to-date coverage from Tax Controversy and Financial Crimes Report, please subscribe by clicking here.

I have recently penned a Law360 article discussing lessons learned from recent tax decisions impacting cannabis businesses.  We will continue to cover this topic on this blog.

To be alerted of updates from Tax Controversy and Financial Crimes Report, please subscribe by clicking here.

United States v. Gerard, a recent case from the Northern District of Indiana, demonstrates how a tax lien, once attached, can stay with property even after the property is conveyed to someone other than the taxpayer.  In 1990, a husband and wife named Robert and Cynthia Gerard bought a residence as tenants by the entirety.  Although the Gerards bought the residence together, Robert paid at least 90% of the purchase price.  Between 2003 and 2008, Cynthia owned a business with outstanding employment and unemployment taxes.  The Gerards and the government generally agreed that the assessments for these tax liabilities attached to Cynthia’s interest in the property.  As time went on, Robert and Cynthia decided to convey the property solely to Robert.  The deed stated that the conveyance was “by way of gift and without any consideration other than for love and affection.”

The government, however, still wished to enforce the liens.  Litigation ensued, and the government moved for summary judgment.  The key issue was whether the liens that were attached to Cynthia’s interest in the property survived the severance of the tenancy by the entirety.  Section 6323 provides that a lien is not valid against a purchaser until the IRS files proper notice.  Thus, according to the court, Robert would not be liable for Cynthia’s outstanding tax balance if Robert was a “purchaser.”  A “purchaser” is “[a] person who, for adequate and full consideration in money or monies worth, acquires an interest (other than a lien or security interest) in property which is valid under local law against a subsequent purchaser without actual notice.”  IRC § 6323(h)(6).  “Adequate and full consideration in money or money’s worth” is “a consideration in money or money’s worth having a reasonable relationship to the true value of the interest in property acquired.”  Treas. Reg. § 301.6323(h)-1(f)(3).

The Gerards argued that Robert was a purchaser because Cynthia used marital assets to pay her business’s expenses and then transferred her interest in the property in repayment of those debts.  The government, however, pointed out that the deed specifically stated that the transfer was made “by way of gift and without any consideration other than for love and affection,” and that any consideration would have been past consideration, which was insufficient.

The court was not concerned that the deed stated that the property was a gift.  It noted that “[i]t is a well-known fact that often a conveyance recites a nominal consideration whereas the true consideration is not nominal.  It is therefore never certain that the recited consideration is the true consideration.”  Clark v. CSX Transp., Inc., 737 N.E.2d 752, 759 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000).  The court was, however, concerned with the fact that the parties agreed that the use of marital assets to pay Cynthia’s business expenses was “past consideration.”  Under the regulations, “adequate and full consideration” includes past consideration only if, “under local law, past consideration is sufficient to support an agreement giving rise to a security interest. . .”  Treas. Reg. § 301.6323(h)-1(a)(3); (f)(3).  Accordingly, the court turned to Indiana law to determine whether past consideration could create a security interest.

The Gerards could not cite any Indiana authority indicating that past consideration gives rise to a security interest.  Also, other federal courts hold that past consideration does not make a party a “purchaser” under section 6323(a).  See, e.g., United States v. Register, 727 F. Supp. 2d 517, 526 (E.D. Va. 2010).  Thus, the court concluded that Robert was not a purchaser under section 6323(a) and that the liens attached to Cynthia’s interest in the property survived the conveyance.

The parties still disputed the extent to which the liens attached to the property.  The government argued that the liens remained attached to a one-half interest in the property.  The Gerards, however, argued that Cynthia’s actual interest was worth less than one-half of the property when it was conveyed, so the liens only attached to something less than a one-half interest.  Here again, the court found that Indiana law did not support the Gerards’ argument.  For example, in Radabaugh v. Radabaugh, the court held that the trial court erred by “conclud[ing] that appellee was the owner of less than an undivided one-half interest in the mortgage loan” for real estate owned by a husband and wife as tenant by the entirety.  35 N.E.2d 114, 115-16 (Ind. Ct. App. 1941).  Thus, the court concluded that the liens were still attached to one-half of Robert’s interest in the property, even after the conveyance.

 

Recently, a Colorado business protested the IRS’ disallowance of their business expenses.  The IRS alleges that the taxpayer was a Colorado medical marijuana dispensary to which Section 280E applies, as a result the IRS asserted that the taxpayers owed additional tax.  The taxpayers paid the tax and sued for a refund in Federal Court.  In a motion for summary judgment, the taxpayer asserted that the IRS did not have the authority to investigate whether the taxpayer violated the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”), that Section 280E violates the Sixteenth Amendment, that the taxpayer properly deducted its expenses, and that the IRS did not produce evidence that Section 280E applies to the taxpayer.  The taxpayer also asserted that the application of Section 280E violated their Fifth Amendment rights and that Section 280E violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against excessive fines and penalties.

The District Court ruled that:

  • the IRS application of Section 280E to a business it determined was selling marijuana was within its authority to apply the Internal Revenue Code;
  • the IRS’ application of Section 280E was a “purely tax-based determination” that did not violate the taxpayer’s Fifth Amendment rights;
  • the taxpayer did not allege that the IRS disallowed costs other than cost of goods sold and therefore the court could not determine that the Sixteenth Amendment was not violated;
  • the taxpayer did not allege enough facts for the court to determine whether Section 280E is an excessive fine and penalty in violation of the Eighth Amendment; and
  • the taxpayer did not allege any facts to show that the IRS lacked evidence to show that the taxpayer was violating the CSA.

The taxpayer has filed a motion for reconsideration and an amended complaint to add allegations necessary to support its claims, so the case may move forward based on those new allegations.   However, the taxpayer’s attempt to stop the IRS from enforcing Section 280E was not successful under the facts of this case.

The case is Alpenglow Botanicals, LLC v. U.S., Colorado Dist. Ct. Case No. 16-cv-00258-RM-CBS.  Opinion and Order Continue Reading Colorado District Court: IRS Enforcement of Section 280E Is Not A Criminal Investigation