I write this from my office in my home in Connecticut which looks out on our backyard and to the neighbor’s house about 60 yards away. Between our house and theirs is a wooded area that could probably accommodate another four homes comfortably but will forever be left as is. From my office I have watched deer and the occasional fox emerge. The bear that attacked our garbage can one evening dragged some of its contents in that direction. The other day I took a photo from my office of a red tailed hawk perched in a high branch in the woods.
An argument could certainly be made that our little wooded patch is an animal sanctuary, but I have never thought of it as worthy of a conservation easement and the tax savings that come with such status; that is, not until I read that St. James Plantation near Southport, NC, had claimed $8 million in conservation easement tax savings for a couple of its golf courses, a claim that was denied.
Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the IRS prevailed in its dispute with the club. After testimony by a Duke University environmental expert, a court in North Carolina turned down the club’s claim that “patches of native vegetation and wildlife,” according to the judge who made the ruling, did not warrant multi-million dollar tax breaks. The conservation professor found that St. James was claiming all parts of its golf courses, including mowed fairways and greens and even paved cart paths. That, he thought, was an easement too far.
The law permits the claim of a charitable deduction if someone or some entity (like a golf club) gives away the right to develop land that otherwise could be developed or used in some other way. The rule has helped protect and preserve millions of acres of pristine land in the U.S. Since I never owned that patch of woods behind my house and since St. James already uses most of the land for which it tried to get a non-use exemption, it appears we both have a similar claim to nothing.