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Conservation Easements: Crafted With Good Intentions and Now Exploited for Tax Benefits

A tax break designed to protect land has become just another massive tax loophole. It looks like conservation easements are here to stay.
December 29, 2017, 6am PST | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Peter Elkind reports on the details of an underappreciated mechanism of the U.S. tax structure that relates to land use, i.e., conservation easements.

The idea seems like the perfect marriage of environmentalism and capitalism: Landowners give up their right to develop a piece of property, and in exchange they receive a special tax deduction. Nature is preserved and everybody benefits.

According to Elkind, conservation easements worked in many examples, but at some point conservation easements became motivated more by commercial reward than for any concern about the natural environment. Elkind recounts the story of the former Millstone Golf Course outside of Greenville, South Carolina, closed in 2006 and dormant until 2016.

Later in 2016, however, a pair of promoters appeared. They gathered investors who purchased the same parcel at the market price and, with the help of a private appraiser, declared it to be worth $41 million, nearly eight times its purchase price. Why? Because with that new valuation and a bit of paperwork, the investors were suddenly able to claim a tax deduction of $4 for each $1 they invested.

According to Elkind, those kinds of transactions have transformed conservation easements into the "single most generous charitable deduction in the tax code." If you're wondering whether it survived the Republican tax reform bill signed recently by the president, it did, according to Elkind. Moreover, President Trump has a long history of building tax shelters by using conservation easements.

The article includes a lot more examples and explanations to describe the tax shelter conservation easements have become.

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Published on Wednesday, December 20, 2017 in ProPublica
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