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City of Alexandria, VA City of Alexandria, VA
Historic Alexandria
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Page updated Apr 1, 2012 9:44 PM
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Preservation Easements

A preservation easement is a means by which the owner of historic property can be assured of continued preservation after the property passes from his or her stewardship. Preservation easements also enable owners to realize significant federal, state, and local tax savings. For more information on this program, contact the Office of Historic Alexandria.



Dulaney House image
The Dulaney House, on Duke Street, is protected by an easement.
Photo by Erik Kvalsvik.

Protecting Alexandria's Historic Resources

Alexandria’s historic resources are irreplaceable. These structures and sites are the tangible reminders of the city’s rich history. The fabric made up of our historic buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes, and sites provides a connection to our heritage and the traditions upon which our city, state and country have been built. This heritage enhances the lives of Alexandria’s citizens and visitors. While some of the more famous places have had their futures secured by being converted into museums or other types of public amenities, most of the resources remain in private ownership and thus are exposed to loss or destructive change. The integrity of the city’s historic character is continually threatened with erosion through demolition, neglect, “densification,” encroachment by major construction projects, as well as lesser forms of modern development.

Some change may be inevitable; however many owners of historic resources are concerned about the future of their properties and want to ensure a proper stewardship of these valuable resources beyond their own tenure. To assist in meeting this goal, federal, state and city laws have been enacted that permit and encourage property owners to use easements as a means of securing long-term legal protection for these resources while they remain in private ownership.

Through the easement program, a private owner has the opportunity to guarantee the perpetual protection of an important historic resource without giving up ownership, use, or enjoyment of the property. The resource remains in private hands and on the tax rolls, but its existence and sympathetic treatment are secured for the benefit of future generations. Furthermore, the current and future owners of the property may be able to take advantage of significant financial benefits associated with easement donation.


What is a Historic Preservation Easement?

An historic preservation easement is a voluntary transfer of some rights associated with property ownership. It is an agreement, set forth in a legal document recorded in the city’s land records, which allows the donor to retain ownership and possession of an historic site or structure while granting to a trusted preservation organization the authority to protect its historic features. Such easements contain provisions that obligate the owner and all subsequent owners to refrain from actions that are incompatible with the property’s preservation. This means that the easement “runs with the land” and legally binds all subsequent owners.

Some easements only protect the open spaces surrounding an historic resource, while others protect exterior facades of historic structures or their significant interior architectural elements. Some easements combine all of these features.

Under the Alexandria’s Historic Preservation Easement Program, easements are granted to the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission (the Commission) and are administered by it through the city’s Office of Historic Alexandria.* The Commission will accept historic preservation easements if the structures or objects on the property are at least 50 years old, the property is significant in city, state, or national history or culture, and the easement protects the open space or other elements of the property that contribute significantly to the cultural heritage and visual beauty of the City of Alexandria.

Alexandria’s easement program has been successful, due in large part to the sense of stewardship shared by owners of easement properties and to the careful administration of the program.

* Most of the city’s thirty existing historic easements are held by the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission, but the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Board of Historic Resources and certain private non-profit preservation organizations also accept historic preservation easements.




Which Alexandria Houses have been Granted Easements?

The Department of Planning and Zoning maintains a list of Alexandria properties with easements.

 



How does an Easement Work?

Open space protection: If the easement protects scenic open spaces, the Commission generally requires that the easement cover enough surrounding open space to preserve the setting and historic context of the historic resource. Restrictions on the land may prohibit or limit subdivision and construction of additional structures on the property.

Architectural protection: If the easement protects the exterior or interior of an historic structure, the Commission requires some control over the architectural elements. Usually, owners must secure written approval from the Commission before undertaking any alterations or additions.

Perpetual duration: All easements held by the Commission must be perpetual in duration; that is, they must “run with the land” and be binding on all subsequent owners. In addition, any current mortgage or lien holders must be given notice of and agree to the proposed easement.

Public access: Easements held by the Commission include a provision for maintaining public access on a limited basis to the part of the property covered by the easement. In addition, federal and state laws condition tax benefits on providing limited public access or public view. This requirement can be satisfied if an easement donor agrees to provide for public access for limited hours at least one or two days a year on mutually agreed terms with the Commission. These terms could include restrictions designed for protection and maintenance of the property, personal circumstances, and any other relevant factors.

Periodic inspection: In order to ensure that the property is preserved as the donor intended, the Commission must be able to inspect the property periodically. The easement provides for annual inspections at a time mutually agreed to by the owner and the Commission. Normally, scenic open space easements do not require access to interiors of the structures on the property.




Why Give an Easement?

For the easement donor, the primary motivation behind the gift is a desire to see the property protected. Because the easement is perpetual, the donor is assured that all future owners of the property will be bound by its conditions. This can be a welcome guarantee for those who have invested considerable time, money, and energy in the restoration or preservation of an historic property.

By accepting an easement, the Commission makes a commitment to the preservation of the property. Its staff and other city government resources provide technical advice and assistance, as well as literature on preservation treatments. The Commission and its staff participate in periodic inspections of easement properties to ensure compliance with the terms of the easement. These inspections are arranged at the mutual convenience of the Commission and the property owner. Such inspections provide an opportunity to discuss maintenance questions or other issues related to the property. Staff members are always available to meet with property owners to discuss their plans or concerns.

 



What are the Typical Terms and Conditions Contained in Historic Easements?

Every easement is negotiated on an individual basis with the property owner. Commission staff and members will help identify the historic elements of the property, discuss the owner’s goals, plans, and needs, and assist in drafting an easement document for the owner’s and the Commission’s review. Easements accepted by the Commission may include provisions similar to the following:

Open space protection: If the easement protects scenic open spaces, the Commission generally requires that the easement cover enough surrounding open space to preserve the setting and historic context of the historic resource. Restrictions on the land may prohibit or limit subdivision and construction of additional structures on the property.

Architectural protection: If the easement protects the exterior or interior of an historic structure, the Commission requires some control over the architectural elements. Usually, owners must secure written approval from the Commission before undertaking any alterations or additions.

Perpetual duration: All easements held by the Commission must be perpetual in duration; that is, they must “run with the land” and be binding on all subsequent owners. In addition, any current mortgage or lien holders must be given notice of and agree to the proposed easement.

Public access: Easements held by the Commission include a provision for maintaining public access on a limited basis to the part of the property covered by the easement. In addition, federal and state laws condition tax benefits on providing limited public access or public view. This requirement can be satisfied if an easement donor agrees to provide for public access for limited hours at least one or two days a year on mutually agreed terms with the Commission. These terms could include restrictions designed for protection and maintenance of the property, personal circumstances, and any other relevant factors.

Periodic inspection: In order to ensure that the property is preserved as the donor intended, the Commission must be able to inspect the property periodically. The easement provides for annual inspections at a time mutually agreed to by the owner and the Commission. Normally, scenic open space easements do not require access to interiors of the structures on the property.




What are the Financial Benefits in Granting Easements?

In addition to the civic pride a donor may derive, the gift of an historic preservation easement may also have financial benefits:*

  • The value of the easement, as determined by a qualified appraiser, may be claimed as a charitable donation deduction from federal taxable income. Deductions for conservation easements may be claimed for up to 30% of the donor's adjusted gross income for any one year. Any unused portion of the deduction may be carried forward for up to five years.
  • Donation of an easement may also lower inheritance taxes. By eliminating the right to further develop property, the owner may lower its value in an estate.
  • Donation of an easement may stabilize or even lower local property taxes. City tax assessors are required by law to take an easement into account in valuing property. Because the easement generally restricts development rights, the assessed value of property subject to an historic preservation easement will normally be reduced. The extent of this reduction, of course, varies with the type and terms of the easement, the nature of the property in the immediate area, and the likelihood that the easement property would have been developed in the future.
  • Under state law, up to 50% of the value of certain easements may be claimed as a credit, within certain dollar limits, against state income taxes. Like the federal tax deduction, this state tax credit may be carried forward for up to five years.
  • Some costs associated with granting an easement are tax deductible. The cost of securing advice from an attorney or accountant about the tax treatment of the donation or how the donation needs to be structured to qualify for a credit or deduction would be deductible; however, the cost of surveys, appraisals, attorneys’ fees for reviewing the terms of the easement, etc. for the donation itself would not be.

* This is a general overview only. Individuals considering easement donation should consult their own tax advisor to determine how these financial benefits may apply to their specific situation.

 



What are the Steps in Granting an Easement?

  • The donor should first consider very specifically, possibly in consultation with counsel, what he or she wants to be covered by the easement. Is it just open space or are there interiors or exteriors of historic structures to be protected? As pointed out above, all easements accepted by the Commission must be made in perpetuity and must allow for a limited public viewing each year, which may occur under controlled conditions. The easement must also contain a provision for periodic inspection by the Commission to ensure compliance with its terms. Other than those two provisions, a donor may choose and state exactly what protections are desired in the easement. For example, if a donor wants to protect open space on the property, he or she may still want to reserve the right to add or rehabilitate a structure in the future. The donor is free to tailor this private contract to fit his or her needs and desires, subject, of course, to the Commission's acceptance.
  • Next, the donor must obtain a legal description of the property. This can be found in a copy of the deed or mortgage papers or at the office of the Alexandria Clerk of the Court where deeds are recorded. If the easement is to be granted on only part of the property, the property owner must obtain a survey of that part at his or her direction and expense.
  • The donor should then contact the Office of Historic Alexandria, or the chair of the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission at 202.662.3824. The Commission will make an appointment to visit the property and discuss the proposed easement with the donor. Commission staff is available to assist in preparing the necessary legal documents or in responding to drafts prepared by the donor's counsel. The property owner will present the proposed easement at a meeting of the Commission, and acceptance of the easement is effected by a vote of the Commission.
  • If the donor hires legal or other professionals to review the easement documents, provide advice on tax issues, etc., these are at the donor's own expense. If the donor desires an estimate of the changes in the property's real estate tax assessment, the city's Department of Real Estate Assessments is available to discuss this in advance of the donation.
  • When the easement documents are finalized and signed, the Commission will file the easement in the land records of the City of Alexandria where it will become a public record and provide notice of the protections of the easement for all subsequent owners.

Historic Alexandria Administration
Lloyd House
220 North Washington Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
703.746.4554
Fax: 703.838.6451
Email

Office Hours
Monday - Friday
8 a.m. to 5 p.m.