While not a familiar term to most people, a preservation easement is the absolute best tool to protect a historic building. Often times, people think landmark or National Register status protects a house from being torn down.
In reality, only a preservation easement can do that. A preservation easement is the least known and understood term when dealing with historic houses, but in the end, the most important and only measure to ensure protection and preservation.
So, what exactly is a preservation easement and what does it do?
A historic preservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement (typically in the form of a deed) which permanently protects a significant historic property. A preservation easement is the only protection for a historic property in perpetuity. Since it is a perpetual easement, an owner is assured that the property’s historic character will be preserved for the life of the property.
Basically, the property owner puts restrictions on what can be done to the property and then transfers those requirements to a preservation organization who then make sure it’s protected and those requirements are followed.
What are the benefits of donating a preservation easement?
- A historic property is protected and preserved for the benefit of the general public
- It allows a property owner to retain private ownership of the property while ensuring that the historic character of the property will be preserved.
- If certain criteria are met, the owner may be eligible for a Federal income tax deduction for the value of the easement. ( This particular benefit is available only to those properties located within a National Register Historic District or is individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places)
What are the easement restrictions?
- Gives the historic preservation organization the legal authority and responsibility to enforce its terms. This includes the right to inspect the property to ensure that the owner is complying with the terms of the easement.
- Typically prohibit an owner from demolishing historic buildings on the property and from making changes that are inconsistent with the historic character of the property (i.e. removing mantles, original windows, architectural trim, etc).
- Proposed alterations to the property may require prior approval from the easement-holding organization.
- Restrictions on subdividing and developing the property
It is also worthy to note that a preservation easement can cover either the exterior, interior, or both, depending on the original terms of the easement. Facade easements are common with commercial buildings but are certainly not limited to just those type of properties.
If the restrictions apply only to the exterior of a building, future alterations to the interior do not require approval by the easement-holding organization, as long as the alterations do not affect the building’s exterior appearance or structural integrity.
In summary, preservation easements are the only way to truly protect a historic property. As discussed in one of our previous articles, the National Register of Historic Places has its function, as does the historic landmark programs, but a preservation easement offers protection in perpetuity for the benefit of all.