When Conservation Looks Like Evasion
Bloomberg Businessweek|August 30, 2021
The IRS is examining conservation easement deductions, putting promoters in its crosshairs
David Voreacos, with Kaustuv Basu, Neil Weinberg, and Elise Young

Jack Fisher has raised hundreds of millions of dollars pitching investors on real estate development projects that were never built.

Fisher, an accountant-turned-developer, promoted projects such as the Preserve at Venice Harbor, near Hilton Head, S.C., where marketing illustrations showed houses on canals that evoked the famous Italian city. Instead of developing the land, he recruited investors to elaborate deals that provided them charitable tax deductions in return for donating easements for conservation. The Internal Revenue Service, however, suspects the deals may amount to tax fraud.

Fisher is at the center of a criminal probe related to these syndicated conservation easements, according to people familiar with the details, who requested anonymity to discuss a confidential matter. The investigation has already led to tax conspiracy charges against three accountants who worked with him.

A syndicated conservation easement gives dozens of investors in partnerships three choices: to build a specific development project; to hold on to the land and build later; or to donate an easement to a land trust or government, promising to forgo development. The third option entitles investors to charitable tax deductions, based on the appraised value of the land, that can be worth four or five times their investment.

Easements have been used—legitimately, and mostly by family partnerships and individuals like farmers—for decades as part of a federal push to preserve more than 30 million acres of land. Those aren’t the focus of an IRS crackdown. Instead, it’s going after promoters like Fisher who sell deals through brokers, accountants, lawyers, and tax preparers, and who market the projects that generate large tax deductions. The IRS has made these an enforcement priority, suing some promoters to shut them down and criminally investigating others.

California conservation lawyer Misti Schmidt says a typical syndicated easement used by wealthy investors is an “ugly tax-shelter scheme” that relies on grossly overvalued appraisals. “There’s so much money to be made, they just keep doing it,” says Schmidt, a partner at Conservation Partners.

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