What the Heck Is a Conservation Easement?
What is an easement?
That means you can’t change anything, right? Can you put in more bathrooms? Can you update the kitchen? Are you required to put up all those holiday decorations?
We’ve heard it all, so we decided to set the record straight! Keep reading to learn about our easement. We discuss what it means for us, and how it guarantees the preservation of this house forever!
There is an easement in place, which protects the house. The main purpose of the easement is to ensure the long-term preservation of the house. Our easement is held (and enforced) by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP).
Legally speaking, an easement is the right to use someone’s land for a specific purpose. They’re not terribly common, but they are a go-to legal solution in many cases.
For example, if you have power lines in your backyard, the utility company may have an easement on your property. This type of easement gives them the legal right to service power lines in your backyard.
Another common example occurs during the subdivision of a property. If you create a landlocked parcel, with no access to a public road, there is often an easement in place. This type of easement would allow the landlocked owner to cross a neighbor’s property to access the road.
Our specific easement is a preservation (or conservation) easement. The Land Trust Alliance explains the details of a preservation easement:
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. Landowners retain many of their rights, including the right to own and use the land, sell it and pass it on to their heirs.
Though every conservation easement is different, they are often used to limit development rights. In our case, the easement accomplished a few different things. It is worth noting that the property is also listed on the local historic register. This means that we are also subject to the rules/approval of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
Conditions of Our Easement
First and foremost, we are required to maintain the exterior of the building in historically-sensitive manner. We are expected to maintain the current condition of all exterior elements, delicately repairing when necessary. We are not allowed to make any changes to the exterior of the property without written approval from the NTHP.
For example, one of the original copper downspouts on the facade split along the rear of the pipe and was spewing water all over the facade during rainstorms. Under the maintenance requirement, we tried to sensitively patch the existing downspout. The patch failed two times.
After the second failure, we reached out to our dedicated easement coordinator at the NTHP. We outlined the steps we took to save the downspout, and explained that we saw no option but replacement.
We submitted an official request to replace the damaged segment of copper, with the explanation that we intended to replace it with an identical pipe, preferably with an increased wall thickness that might last longer. The Trust agreed, and granted us approval to replace the downspout. The request process took less than 24 hours.
Revolutionary Germantown Festival
The second major part of the easement stipulates that we must allow the annual Revolutionary Germantown Festival to occur. This type of “public access requirement” is not uncommon in conservation easements.
On the easement, there is a drawing of the property with a red line indicating the area RGF can use. Technically, we are only required to allow the Revolutionary Germantown Festival to occur inside the circular part of our driveway. That being said, we have allowed the full use of our property to support the festival.
It’s worth mentioning that the easement does not require us to participate in Mt. Airy Day (annual neighborhood block party). We loan our yard to the awesome folks at West Mount Airy Neighbors who throw the event.
The easement restricts any future development of the site. The property may not be subdivided. We are not allowed to build any out-buildings without prior approval from the National Trust.
The easement has specific language that protects the magnificent trees we have on site. We are fortunate to have a wide-variety of mature, non-native trees.
The trees planted here are a reflection of its former occupants. The Johnson family was well-known for their gardens! They were early importers of foreign plants (including, we believe, that stinky ginkgo tree in the front yard!).
Many of the trees in the yard are rare for the area, and some aren’t even supposed to grow here! Needless to say, we love our trees! Click here to read more about our trees!
The easement specifically prohibits us from removing any tree with a DBH over 6 inches. DBH stands for “diameter at breast height,” which is the standard measurement for trees. (See more on that here)
The fifth aspect of the house that is protected is the circulation pattern. This is an interesting one, because the circulation pattern has changed over the years. The circulation pattern is protected because it reflects the way in which the house was originally used.
Primarily, this means that we can’t change the floor plan of the house without prior approval. It also means that we have this weird stairway to nowhere. There are actually two stairways to nowhere in the house… Read about the other one here!
This stairwell was the original passage between the first and second floor of the rear wing of the house. This was likely used by the servants (always paid, the Quaker Johnsons were among the earliest abolitionists!).
During the initial restoration during the 1940s, this stairwell was covered on the second floor. The second floor was reconfigured, and a modern bathroom was installed for potential caretakers.
This stairwell is specifically protected by the easement. Our plan is to remove the walls on each side to expose this quirky detail. Prior to that, the structure needs professional evaluation first.
Original Decorative Elements
Last, but certainly not least, the easement protects a number of original elements inside the house. An easement that protects the inside of a building is very uncommon, but not totally unheard of.
In our case, the easement mainly protects the original features of the house that are still in-tact. Fortunately, because the house was a family heirloom and subsequently a museum, all of the former owners had a very vested interest in the preservation and upkeep of the house. This resulted in many of the original details of the house surviving the past 220 years!
In almost every room, the following elements are original: flooring, windows + window surrounds, wainscotting, baseboards, door surrounds, fireplaces, mantelpieces, and decorative plaster molding.
See? Not too scary! We were given a draft of the easement as soon as we were in contract to buy the house. We quickly realized that it was designed to protect all of our favorite features about the house.
It guaranteed the long-term protection of the elements that make this house so special. Rather than deterring us, it reinforced the idea that we were a great fit.
Though there is usually a huge tax-incentive associated with donating a conservation easement, we were ineligible because this easement was a stipulation of our purchase contract… so it goes!
It is worth noting that our easement experience wouldn’t have been so positive without the help of the National Trust. They run a tight ship over there! As previously mentioned, we have a dedicated easement coordinator, which helps facilitate the process.
From the beginning, they’ve been tremendously amenable to the process of making this building a home. When the building was first saved in the 1940s, no one expected the house would ever be lived in again.
So, while the house was very well maintained, common modern amenities were never part of the plan. That’s how we wound up with 7 bedrooms and only one shower!
Our First Major Request
Anyway, we’ve had no trouble on our quest to turn this house into a home again. The first major project we started after moving in was the installation of central air for the master bedroom.
We were very sensitive when designing the system. Before asking for permission to execute the project, we discussed the location of every hole, every screw, and every wire with our HVAC contractor.
We ultimately chose a high-velocity system, which is very compact. Perfect for older houses! We laid-out the system to be as minimally-disruptive to the protected elements as possible. The only visible parts of the system would be the small, round vents in the ceiling of the second floor.
The supply and return lines would be run from the attic to the basement, hidden inside the fireplace cupboards. We fit the system into as many existing openings as we could find!
Our official, written request to the NTHP was 10 pages long! We probably included way more information than necessary. We shared our thought process, other installation configurations we considered but were more invasive, and floor plans/pictures showing the proposed vent locations.
Within a few days, our request was approved, and we began construction!
All in all, while the easement does add a few more steps to the process, we’re ok with it! We know that our goals are closely aligned with the goals of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We’re confident we will be able to accomplish everything we want for our home.
We’re owners of a huge old, 1857 +/- gentleman’s folly in Mt Airy. We bought it in 1994 and are now planning to install central AC serving (at least) the second floor. Our intent is to have a high-velocity system installed such that very few visual compromises are made. We’ve had an HVAC contractor look at the job but he apparently did not want the job and did not submit a price. Can you tell us who your contractor was and how you liked him? (I’m a retired architect with a lot of historic building experience, and presumably sensitivity.). I got a Cook’s tour of Upsala in about 1988 – breathtaking!
The Gothic revival house at 48 West Allen’s La. 215 806 1099
Hi there! Thanks for reaching out! We used Unique Indoor Comfort to install our high-velocity system. They’re a bit pricey, but they stand behind their work!
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