DHR’s Easement program allows property owners to voluntarily protect the historical, architectural and archaeological integrity of their property by placing a permanent preservation easement on the property. The easement restricts future development of the property, prohibits certain activities and requires prior approval of others. Except for rights specifically relinquished, the landowner continues to own, use and control the land.
Protecting Virginia’s Historic Landmarks
Virginia’s historic landmarks are irreplaceable resources. They are tangible reminders of the state’s diverse history and traditions. Our historic buildings, neighborhoods, landscapes, and sites are essential to Virginia’s special identity and enhance the lives of both our citizens and countless visitors.
While many famous places have had their futures secured through conversion to museums or other types of public amenities, most of Virginia’s landmarks remain in private ownership and thus are vulnerable to loss or destruction through neglect or changes in land use.
Although change is inevitable, many owners of historic landmarks are concerned about the future of their properties and want to ensure the proper stewardship of these resources beyond their tenure. To meet this need, in 1966 the Commonwealth of Virginia instituted the Virginia Historic Preservation Easement Program, providing a tool that would enable historic landmarks to enjoy long-term legal protection while remaining 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. While the landmark remains in private hands and on the tax rolls, its existence and sympathetic treatment are secured for the benefit of future generations. Furthermore, the property owner can often take advantage of significant financial benefits associated with an easement donation.
For more details about historic preservation easements, visit links in the top-right box on this page. Also, for an overview of the easement program’s history, read this (2006) article (Forty Years of Preservation: Virginia’s Easement Program) authored by former DHR senior architectural historian Calder Loth.
The legislation drafted by Freeman and subsequently passed by the General Assembly enabled owners to donate voluntarily to the state specific rights to their properties, including the rights to demolish a landmark building, to make architectural alterations without the state’s approval, and to undertake commercial development and subdivision of a landmark’s historic setting. These donations of property rights took the form of deed restrictions, which we now call a preservation easement.
Conducting a title search at the local lands records office will help you determine if the property is protected by an historic preservation easement. All easements held by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources are recorded with the land records of the city or county in which the parcel of land subject to the easement is located. DHR also regularly notifies city and county tax assessors and planning and zoning offices of its easements. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) also maintains a Conserved Lands Database of all easements held by various land trusts and agencies in Virginia, which can be found by following this link.
The length of the review time depends on the nature and scope of the project. Each easement project review request is assigned to an individual staff member, most often the Easement Program Architect or Easement Program Archaeologist, for review. The staff member will remain in direct contact with the landowner about the status of the project. Less complex projects are usually turned over in one to two weeks. Many of DHR’s easements require the Department to issue a response to the landowner within thirty days.
The Virginia Department of Historic Resources does not give tax advice and recommends that donors consult their attorney, accountant, and/or tax advisors regarding the tax implications of a gift of easement. A gift of a qualified conservation easement in perpetuity may qualify as a non-cash charitable gift which may yield a deduction for federal income tax purposes and a credit for state income tax purposes. An independent qualified appraiser must establish the value of the easement that is primarily based on the value of the development rights relinquished by the donor. Once that value is established, it becomes the basis for calculating tax benefits.