On February 14, 2019, the IRS will hold a public hearing on its regulations governing Qualified Opportunity Zones. The public comment period closed on December 28, 2018. The IRS is expected to finalize regulations soon after the public hearing.
One of the most notable comments received during the public comment period on the IRS regulations for Opportunity Zones (QOZ) came from the Deputy Director of U.S. EPA’s Office of Brownfields and Land Revitalization (See, epa_comments_on_qoz_regs). The comment letter did an excellent job of pointing out that the regulations could, in large part, freeze out brownfields from leveraging the significant advantages of the OZ classification. This is best highlighted by the following comment in the letter:
EPA’s OBLR encourages the IRS to clarify in the final guidance that investments in the assessment, remediation, and redevelopment of brownfields properties located in Qualified Opportunity Zones (QOZs) are included within the scope of Qualified Opportunity Funds (QOFs). This clarification will provide an incentive to invest funds in the assessment, remediation, and reuse of brownfield properties.
As discussed in EPA’s comment letter, without proper treatment of costs associated with investigating and cleanup of brownfields, developers will have very little incentive to tackle properties with any significant environmental contamination. At issue are regulations regarding which properties or improvements allow a property to qualify for the tax incentives associated with QOZs. Under the draft regulations, properties must meet certain requirements to qualify:
- Substantial Improvement Test- the investor must substantially improve the real estate by doubling the tax basis of any building on the property without regard to the value of the land itself. Under current regulations, if the investor/developer spends funds to investigate or cleanup contamination on the property and, as a result, the land value increases, that increase cannot be counted toward the substantial improvement test;
- 30-Month Window for Improvements- the draft regulations establish a 30-month window to complete the investments (i.e. building improvements) used to qualify under the Substantial Improvement Test. Since most brownfield cleanups will add substantial time to a redevelopment project, the 30-month window requirement would also act to exclude brownfield redevelopment projects; and
- Original Use- the original use must commence with the applicable QOZ investment. The draft regulations put the focus on the vertical structure on the property, not the land itself. By focusing on buildings, the QOZ would provide little incentive to cleaning up contaminated land.
To allow flexibility for brownfield projects, EPA proposes the following changes to the IRS proposed regulations:
- Brownfield = Original Use- Allow “brownfields” (as that term is defined under CERCLA) to qualify for the “original use” thereby putting the focus on the land when the land is contaminated. EPA also states that allowing brownfields to qualify as the “original use” will address 30-month deadline for improvements which may be too restrictive if substantial cleanup is needed prior to development;
- Vacant or Underutilized Properties = Original Use- Allow properties that have been vacant or underutilized for a period of one year or more to meet the definition of “original use” under the regulations. “Underutilized” would mean the entire property or a portion thereof which is only used at irregular periods or intermittently. Expansion of the definition of “original use,” as suggested by EPA, would address concerns related to properties that add to blight even if they don’t meet the definition of a “brownfield;”
- Foreclosed or Land Bank Property Should Qualify– if a property has gone through foreclosure or is being held by a land bank, EPA encourages the IRS to allow those properties to qualify for QOZ investment by treating them as “Underutilized or Abandoned Property” under the regulations;
- Sampling and Cleanup Costs = Substantial Improvements- EPA requests that the IRS regulation treat assessment, cleanup and other site preparation costs as expenses that meet the “Substantial Improvement” Test under the QOZ regulations;
- Allow Redevelopment Ready Brownfield Projects to Qualify- EPA asks that the regulation allow a project to qualify that is solely assessment and cleanup of a brownfield property in preparation for future development. Such a change could add a major incentive to spur cleanup of brownfields and positioning such property for future development;
- Allow Gains from QOZ Investment Related to Brownfield Cleanup to Be Carried Over to Vertical Improvements on the Property- EPA requests that the regulations allow the gains realized from the sale or exchange of QOZ Property to be deferred if they are reinvested in replacement QOZ Property within a 12-month period. Without such clarification EPA is concerned that a Redevelopment Ready Brownfield Project may have to delay actual building construction for ten years after cleanup is complete to access the benefits of the Opportunity Zone incentive; and
- Stack Window for Cleanup with Window for Redevelopment- EPA requests that the IRS allow a 30-month window for brownfield cleanup to show substantial improvement to the land value and a separate 30-month window for building improvements for costs to count toward the Substantial Improvement Test.
If the IRS does not revise its regulations to address EPA regulations there is a strong possibility that brownfield projects will not be able to leverage the significant tax incentives provided by QOZs.