Easements Explained

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By James C. Massey

Bell House

The 1898 Bell House, property of Historic New England. (Courtesy: Historic New England)

A historic preservation easement represents a partial property right held by a nonprofit organization or government agency. Its intention is to prevent demolition, certain changes, or development, generally in perpetuity. Preservation easements protect design features of a building, and may also protect historically significant landscape features. Open space easements protect land from further development. These may be written separately or in combination.

Preservation easements protect historic buildings, including private residences. An easement may cover only the exterior (façade easement); often, however, it also covers significant interior features. It can provide for allowance of stipulated changes, such as the construction of a garage or a minor addition. Reasonable changes not specified may be negotiated in the future between a property owner and the easement holder.

TAX RAMIFICATIONS Because an easement is commonly donated by the property owner, it may provide federal and state tax deductions, and sometimes lower the property’s tax assessment. Deductions are measured by an evaluation of the property by an IRS-qualified appraiser. To qualify for tax deductions, the property must be a “certified historic structure” listed in the National Register of Historic Places, or be a “contributing property” in a National Register historic district. Preservation easements most often are held by qualified local and state historic preservation organizations, or by local or state government. Sometimes an easement is given to two organizations jointly, providing protection in the unforeseen future. Using grant funds, easements may be purchased (especially those with significant open space), although donation is the general rule.

BURDEN & PROTECTION A well-written easement should provide for periodic inspections to ensure compliance. (Thus, professional documentation should be made when the easement is written.) Some organizations and states have stan-dard language for agreements. But it’s important that donors seek review by an attorney and an accountant, as the donor is giving up certain property rights.

An easement does not affect the ability to buy or sell a property. Depending on location and market forces, an easement might affect resale value, as it is binding on future owners as well. (Future owners may not be able to add a wing, for instance, or may need to have the easement holder approve its design.) The public benefit of an easement is that it helps protect historic properties and control open-space development. The protection extends beyond what future owners might do, alerting government agencies to the significance of a historic property.

Your State Historic Preservation Officer (achp.gov), and the many local and statewide historic preservation organizations, can advise you on how to proceed, and tell you what organizations are possible recipients of the easement. See also the National Trust for Historic Preservation (savingplaces.org) and the Land Trust Alliance (landtrustalliance.org).

The 1898 Bell House
in New Hampshire recently became the 100th easement property for Historic New England. The seaside, Shingle Style residence was designed by Boston architects Wales and Holt. The easement protects exterior and interior features (even plaster, built-ins, hardware, and lighting) as well as the carriage house and landscape features including stone walls and Colonial Revival garden beds. The easement safeguards the two-acre site from insensitive development in the future.