Thoughts of a traveling dirt lawyer in the days of COVID

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I am a planner. In November of 2019 I told my boss I planned to retire in February of 2021, giving us plenty of time to name and train my replacement. Thank goodness, Jennifer Rubin stepped up to learn more than I ever knew about my job. My husband, Frank, had already retired, and we had plans to travel.

But none of us planned for COVID!

Jennifer, the rest of our office and I all worked from home beginning March of 2020. We did manage to put everything in place for my retirement, and Jennifer has taken over like a champ…seamlessly.

After two COVID vaccines, Frank and I decided to put our toes timidly into the travel waters. Six adults flew with masks to Denver and toured Colorado for ten days. We drove over 1,700 miles and saw six National Parks, the Air Force Academy, and many other beautiful sites. (We crossed over to Utah on a whim to visit beautiful Arches National Park.)

 Except for the challenges of breathing at heights up to 14,000 feet above sea level, Colorado is a delightful state! Having grown up in Georgetown, South Carolina, and Panama City, Florida, my lungs are accustomed to breathing at sea level. And compared to Columbia, the temperatures in September were wonderfully cool!

A dirt lawyer can’t travel without having lots of real estate thoughts and raising lots of real estate questions.

Here are just a few from Colorado:  How was all that land accumulated for those National Parks? Were condemnations required? Who was displaced? What kinds of contracts are in place for care and maintenance of the parks?  How does the Federal Government share and manage the Academy’s real estate with the City of Colorado Springs and the State of Colorado? Is the Academy’s real estate treated like the real estate of our Fort Jackson? (I once handled the legal work for the creation of a subdivision from surplus Fort Jackson land, so I learned a good bit about the technicalities.) Where do those people who live in the middle of nowhere buy groceries and deliver babies?  How is that mountainous property surveyed?

I can do the research, but maybe some lawyers who are much smarter than I am will point me in a direction.

Of the six vaccinated, mask wearing adults, three came home and tested positive for COVID! Thankfully, the cases were minor, and everyone is fine by now.

After booster shots, Frank and I decided to travel again. This time, we struck out on our own and drove about 1,400 miles from Columbia to Asheville, Nashville, Memphis, Selma and back to Columbia. What a great trip!

We spent one night at an upscale, relatively new hotel in Asheville, and I was struck with how cramped it seemed, surrounded by busy Asheville streets. I, of course, thought about the developer’s thought process in accumulating the real estate and placing the hotel in that location.

Don’t judge, but it was Halloween week, so we took the “Spooky Asheville Walking Tour”. We didn’t see any ghosts, but I was struck with the stories of covering up cemeteries to create streets. I’m not sure I bought that story from a real estate standpoint. I’ve been involved in many claims involving missed cemeteries!

In fact, I couldn’t decide whether the tour guide was completely making up the stories or whether some of them were based in historical fact. Apparently, a lieutenant of Al Capone was pushed out of Asheville’s Flat Iron Building, and a United Methodist Church is haunted by a nun who predicts futures. I may need to check some of this out. Call me skeptical.

At Graceland, we saw Elvis’ Trust Deed with the notation, “A Title Policy is a Vital Policy.” I couldn’t agree more, and I’m attaching a picture for your enjoyment.

At the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, we watched the ducks leave their fountain in the hotel lobby to return to their “penthouse apartment” for the evening. We watched this show twice and dubbed it the best show in town. (The “rubber ducky” drinks I was imbibing may have added to the attraction.)

At the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, we saw a “Witness Post” advising that we shouldn’t remove a survey market. What dirt lawyer could resist taking a picture of that? It is also attached for your enjoyment.

Thanks for indulging my real estate meandering thoughts and questions. Our next trip will be with children and grandchildren to Disney World for Thanksgiving week. Be prepared!

Will Biltmore Estate’s Owners Get Their Fairytale Ending When IRS Is Done With Them?

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Biltmore EstateOne piece of real estate that fascinates most Carolinians is the picturesque Biltmore Estate in Asheville surrounded by the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. According to articles in Law360*, a trial is scheduled for February 24 in the U.S. Tax Court that may determine whether the property continues to be privately owned and operated or whether portions of the real estate must be sold to developers to pay taxes.

The estate consists of 8,000 acres, 75 acres of formal gardens, and the largest privately owned house in the United States. The 255-room mansion was built between 1889 and 1895, in the Gilded Age, by George Washington Vanderbilt. Mr. Vanderbilt intended for the estate to be self-supporting, so he established a forestry program, poultry farms, cattle farms, hog farms, a dairy and a furniture business.

IMG_3884[1]George Vanderbilt had one child, Cornelia, who married British diplomat John Francis Amherst Cecil. Mr. and Mrs. Cecil worked with the City of Asheville to open the estate to the public in 1930 to spur tourism in the area during the Depression and to generate revenue to support the estate. The Cecil family turned the aging estate into a thriving tourist attraction, now including an inn, a farm, restaurants, gift shops and a winery, among other money-making ventures.

Most national treasures are operated by governmental agencies. According to the Law360 articles, the Cecils believe The Biltmore should be given special consideration because it operates as a business venture causing no drain on federal or state governments.

At issue now is a stock gift to the Cecils’ five grandchildren reported on 2010 tax returns at $20.88 million. The IRS claims the stock is worth $95 million. The family believes the stock should be valued as minority interests in a going concern.  But the IRS argues that the asset value is worth more than the value of the going concern, so a liquidation value should be used.

Lovers of this historic landmark will need to follow this story to determine whether the preferred destination of more than a million visitors per year will remain available as a vacation destination.

*Biltmore Owners Say IRS Is Stonewalling $95M Gift Row, 1/11/2016; Biltmore Owners Battle IRS over $95M Stock Gift, 7/7/2014.

(The Estate’s website is the source for many of the facts in this blog.)