Preservation Easements: Future in Question?

Preservation Easements: Future in Question?
Preservation Easements: Future in Question?
State Street, Albany

June 18, 2012

The Conservancy’s Director of Technical Services, Alex Herrera, was invited to speak about preservation easements by the Preservation League of New York State at their Preservation Colleagues Meeting held at the University Club in downtown Albany on June 18. The Conservancy holds 46 easements on buildings ranging from the Plaza Hotel to Brooklyn brownstones.

The conference comes at a crucial time for preservation easements because their tax advantages are being challenged by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) even though the program has been created and affirmed by the US Congress. The future of easements as a preservation tool is in question, or at least in transition. The Conservancy and other easement holding organizations are watching various court cases throughout the country, which will ultimately determine how easements will be used in the future.

Very briefly, a preservation easement is a binding legal agreement between a property owner and a qualified preservation organization that transfers the ownership of the entire exterior of an historic building to the preservation organization. No exterior work can be executed on an easement property without the consent of the easement holder. Although the easement holder’s consent is required to make repairs or changes, the cost of the work is entirely the responsibility of the property owner. This type of easement is recorded on the property’s Deed of Title and its obligations carry forward to all future owners.

Herrera spoke about the Conservancy’s long experience as an easement holding organization and talked about how the Conservancy has used easements as a tool to further preservation goals in NYC. At first the Conservancy placed easements on various endangered buildings it acquired to ensure their long-term preservation. Later, the Conservancy accepted a number of easements from owners working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the process of transferring unused developments rights from their landmarks. The Commission stipulated that easements had to be donated to the Conservancy so as to ensure that the properties be maintained in “sound first class condition.” More recently, individual property owners have donated easements to the Conservancy in order to use the tax advantages that are clearly spelled out in the law but that are now under debate.

Other speakers included The Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA), Adirondack Architectural Heritage, and the Agricultural Stewardship Association, which protects farmland through the use of easements.