Golf and the IRS

IRS Investigates Golf Course Exemptions

I’m not up on how the tax industry works up north, or the nature of the relationship between the Canadian tax structure and the average citizen. However, down here in the states, the great annual tax battle begins again, and carries through the next three or four months. The IRS, what some refer to as the Internal Revenge Service, is gearing up for its own version of institutional Christmas, and it appears that a new battle seems inevitable. The golf industry has always had a peculiar relationship with the tax people, as they own and operate large patches of land that affect all manner of wildlife, air, water, and plant conservation. When the conservation movement gained momentum decades ago, the government’s tax arm created a group of deductions for those land managers who supported the cause, and golf courses sat in the epicenter of the category.

I cannot remember an occasion in which I sided with the IRS. As many or most people might suggest, they act as a blunt instrument, have no finesse or care for individual situations, and pass the money onto a government that spends it on things many of us don’t believe in, to the neglect of those things we favor. However, in our general distaste for this mercenary part of the year after the Christmas season, there are the inevitable people, corporations and clubs that are taking too much advantage of the deduction possibilities. Some of the lengths to which some golf courses go, apparently, border on the ridiculous.

Richard Rubin, in an article written for Yahoo, describes an ongoing drama at St. James Plantation in North Carolina. Like many courses and clubs, they claim exemptions for the conservation-supportive aspects of the land they set aside for recreational golf. Great – courses have protected Venus Flytraps and Bald Eagles, fish and all manner of wetlands reeds and bushes. The IRS, however,  hired an expert ecologist to check out what was really going on there, with actual soil, water and plant samples. The natural beauty of the course was no longer enough. The IRS wanted specifics. - The Golf Warehouse

St. James had not merely claimed its marshlands or whatever else makes up the rough, but “every fairway, green and trail, even the paved ones,” everything but the pool table in the pro shop. The protection from development seemed to be marginalized to the point of uselessness, and as Rubin reminded us, building fewer houses than they might have doesn’t qualify, and a chemical-laden fairway is different than an owl sanctuary deep in the rough on number 10. What was found at the Champions Retreat Golf Club in Georgia is described by Rubin as “high-end houses near an estuary pounded with fertilizers and herbicides.” The Georgia lawyers seem confident enough, however, with their count of Venus Fly Traps, but I don’t know – seems pretty flimsy to me.
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Not all courses are created equal in the conservation arena. Some offer protection to one animal, and drive another out. Some produce eye-catching natural vistas full of interesting flora, but they exist surrounded with chemical killing fields. They’re not all green, either. While the path through the desert looks good, the normal way of things for desert wildlife (as teeming as it is in the forests) can be unkind, no matter how many Venusian Horned Toads (fictional) you can produce in court. The IRS might not have caught on if such deductions had not been claimed in the tens of millions. Maybe the high-end resorts killed the golden goose.

There is a time to befriend the IRS, although I choke on the words. When we pay through the nose because larger individuals, corporations, and clubs deduct sums that are many times our annual salaries, there’s a new enemy on the block. Because I love golf so much, I am willing to release that angst if they will get on the bandwagon, legitimately follow through with the cause, and do everything they can to make their courses models of conservation. Then I’ll go back to grumbling at the IRS – the way it’s always been, and the way it should always be.

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