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History of the Preservation Easement Program

Historic New England's Preservation Easement Program is one of the oldest and most recognized preservation easement programs in the country. The organization entered into its first preservation easement in 1947. Several more easement documents were signed in the decades to follow, and easements were used in the 1970s as a way for Historic New England to responsibly sell nine historic properties it owned that could be better maintained and preserved under private ownership. It was not until 1981 a formal Preservation Easement Program was established.

Motivations for creating the program in 1981 included: (a) filling a need at the regional level for an organization to accept preservation easements (one with the expertise and resources to work with property owners, and to enforce the easements themselves); (b) promoting a preservation tool that allows properties to remain on municipal tax roles and does not incur maintenance costs for the easement holding organization; and (c) to provide potential tax advantages to historic property owners.

Initial discussions centered on the belief that the credibility of the program would depend on Historic New England's vigilance in administering the easements and the ability to pursue legal action for violations. Contribution endowments, deposited into a restricted fund, have always been a crucial part of the program. This fund allows the program to function in a self-supporting capacity and have the necessary resources to pursue legal action when necessary. Finally, the program was seen as a critical method for increasing the organization’s ability to preserve and protect significant New England architecture. That objective remains true today.

Many of the early easements in the program resulted from the de-accessioning of historic houses acquired by Historic New England that did not meet museum criteria or had very small or no endowments to cover maintenance expenses. The organization accepted its first private donation of restrictions in 1982. From the beginning, easement coverage has included exterior, interior and landscape elements in order to provide comprehensive protection. The first full-time professional staff member, responsible for managing acquisitions and administering existing easements, was hired in 1983. Today, the Preservation Easement Program is administered by a full-time, professional staff. To date, Historic New England's Preservation Easement Program currently holds more than ninety-five easements.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a preservation easement?
Why donate a preservation easement?
Why donate to Historic New England?
What properties are eligible for Historic New England's Preservation Easement Program?
What is the application fee?
What are the costs of creating an easement?
What is the endowment fund?
What does the easement allow?
Is public access typically required?
How long does the donation process take?

What is a preservation easement?

A preservation easement, also known as a preservation restriction in some New England states, is a legal agreement used to protect significant building and landscape features of a historic property. The property owner (easement donor) and a qualified preservation organization (easement holder) sign a legal document, recorded with local land records, that gives the easement holder certain rights and responsibilities associated with perpetual protection. The easement does not prevent future sales, leases, or estate planning, and the owner remains responsible for maintenance and taxes.

Why donate a preservation easement?

Easements prohibit demolition of historic resources and can prevent lot subdivision. Historic New England's easements also provides for project review to ensure that any proposed changes to the historic house and/or landscape are carried out sensitively and do not damage or destroy protected elements. Generally, Historic New England’s easements protect exterior and interior architectural features as well as open space and designed landscape features. The organization is one of the few in the country to consistently protect significant interior elements and finishes, including staircases, floors, woodwork, fireplaces, historic wallpaper, decorative painting and early hardware. Historic New England also frequently protects significant landscape features such as fences, stone walls, and designed gardens. While protected features vary by property and are determined based on each property’s historic and architectural significance, Historic New England does not accept façade-only or term-limited easements.

Why donate to Historic New England?

Historic New England is the region's oldest holder of preservation easements. Additionally, the organization is one of the few in the country to protect not just exterior architectural features, but also interior details and finishes, including staircases, fireplaces, moldings, historic wallpaper, decorative painting, and early hardware. Advantages of Historic New England's Preservation Easement Program include:

  • An experienced, dedicated and professional staff, knowledgeable about easements and historic properties
  • Our Stewardship Fund, which provides the necessary financial resources to administer our program
  • A willingness to enforce our easements through legal means if necessary
  • Ability to list properties within the program for sale on website

What properties are eligible for Historic New England's Preservation Easement Program?

Eligibility is determined by Historic New England on a case-by-case basis. Generally, a property should be listed or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, but this is not required. Historic New England is interested in working to preserve a variety of architectural styles that represent all regions of New England.

What is the application fee?

A $500 application fee is required after Historic New England has decided a property is eligible for the Preservation Easement Program. This fee is designed to cover a portion of the initial costs of preparing the preservation easement document.

What are the costs of creating an easement?

Historic New England incurs a variety of expenses in creating a new preservation easement. These costs usually include: travel expenses and staff time for site visits, meetings, and drafting the easement document; documentary photography of the property by a professional photographer; and legal fees associated with review of the easement document by the organization's legal counsel, including the title search, and recording fees (Historic New England does not cover any costs associated with an owner's legal counsel).

What is the endowment fund?

The endowment fund is a restricted pool of money designated for the ongoing administration of the Preservation Easement Program, including support of the full-time professional staff which monitors the easements held by Historic New England. The endowment fund is also used to cover the up-front costs of incoming properties into the program and as a legal defense fund, which provides money to enforce the organization's existing easements when necessary.

What does an easement allow?

Preservation easements do not prevent the sale or lease of a historic property or hinder estate planning. Historic New England's easements also do not require a homeowner to receive approval for completing basic maintenance of their home, such as painting or minor repairs. In most cases paint color is not restricted. Restrictions to certain spaces such as kitchens and bathrooms are typically minimal, allowing a homeowner to upgrade these spaces for modern living. For projects that may affect protected features, Historic New England staff work with the property owner to make sure their needs are met without removing or damaging these features.

Is public access typically required?

Public access is not typically required for a preservation easement. In some cases, where a homeowner is seeking a tax deduction, some form of limited access may be required. This may be met in a variety of ways, such as depositing photographs in a local library or selectively opening the house for researchers or the general public.

How long does donation the process take?

Depending on the donor's circumstances, the donation of a preservation easement may take several months to over a year to complete. For complex property interests, and for owners seeking listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the process requires a minimum of twelve months. Additionally, the various laws in the applicable state will determine the speed of the process.

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History of the Preservation Easement Program