IRS Toughens Scrutiny of Land Gifts
By Joe Stephens and
David B. Ottaway
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 1, 2004; Page A01
TThe Internal Revenue
Service announced yesterday that it is cracking
down on improper tax deductions taken by people who give real
cash to environmental groups, warning that taxpayers could
penalties and charities could lose their tax-exempt status.
The IRS is specifically targeting gifts of "conservation
deed restrictions that limit some types of real estate
easements have become the environmental movement's key tool
preserving fragile ecosystems and millions of acres of open
The IRS is focusing on easements that have questionable public
or have been manipulated to generate inflated deductions.
"We've uncovered numerous instances where the tax benefits of
open spaces and historic buildings have been twisted for
individual benefit," IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said in
statement. "Taxpayers who want to game the system and the
assist them will be called to account."
The IRS warned that it intends to levy penalties on charity
and board members who collect or knowingly help secure
deductions claimed in connection with such transactions.
The announcement did not name individual taxpayers or
comes as the IRS is conducting a major audit of the
Nature Conservancy, the world's largest environmental
The Washington Post reported last year that the Conservancy
repeatedly bought land, added some development restrictions,
resold the properties at reduced prices to its trustees and
supporters. The buyers made cash gifts to the Conservancy
to the difference in price, thereby qualifying for substantial
deductions - just as if they had given money to their local
The Conservancy said the sales prices were proper because the
development restrictions reduced the market value of the
tracts. In the
wake of the news articles, however, the Conservancy announced
would no longer conduct such deals with its board members and
Sheldon Cohen, a former IRS commissioner now working as a
in Washington, called yesterday's announcement an unusually
action. He said, "It is pretty obvious who it is aimed at."
Conservancy spokesman James Petterson said yesterday that
there were studying the IRS action.
"The Nature Conservancy over the last decade has received
opinions reflecting other interpretations of the law,"
"We are reviewing what the IRS issued, assessing its impact on
programs and determining appropriate actions."
In a statement yesterday, the IRS said that it "intends to
may assess penalties for improper tax deductions claimed for
easements to charities. Easements that serve no conservation
create no significant public benefit do not qualify for tax
the agency said. Some taxpayers have claimed deductions for
exceed the value of the restrictions placed on their land, the
The agency also said that in "appropriate cases" it may treat
payments made to charities coincident with land deals as part
purchase price - not as tax-deductible charitable gifts.
"The IRS may impose penalties on promoters, appraisers and
involved in these transactions," the release said. "The IRS
challenge the tax-exempt status of the charitable
organization, based on
the organization's operation for . . . private benefit."
The IRS said one of the agency's top priorities now is
tax-deduction schemes involving nonprofit organizations.
The Senate Finance Committee began investigating easement
involving the Conservancy and other charities last year.
Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said the investigation's findings
so far demand
"a serious rethinking" of tax laws and stronger enforcement by
"The IRS is right to subject these sweetheart deals, often to
to hard scrutiny," Grassley said yesterday. "I'm encouraged
that the IRS is
willing to challenge the tax-exempt status of charitable
organizations that engage in shady practices in land-donation
transactions. Shutting down the bad actors will be a strong
'business as usual' has been put out of business.
"Land donated for a conservation purpose should help the
create open space," he said. "All too often, these
donations appear to do very little for the environment and
fill the bank accounts of donors and middlemen."
Rand Wentworth, president of the Land Trust Alliance, called
action "really good news for legitimate charities." The group
1,260 nonprofit land banks, many of which hold conservation
"This will help restore the integrity of good land trusts,"
Stephen J. Small, a former IRS lawyer and a leading expert on
said he is pleased the agency is targeting appraisers and
promoters of improper
tax deals. "In this field, this is new," he said. "I think
Land trusts hold more than 12,000 conservation easements
though not all of them generate tax deductions for the owners.
said it has no figures for the total value of tax deductions
© 2004 The Washington Post Company