Building constructive relationships with property owners or representatives is a key element to successful easement administration. A property owner that knows and trusts the easement-holding organization, and more specifically, that organization’s representative, is more likely to reach out with questions about the easement. As a result, the stewardship of the easement property can improve, particularly in avoiding misunderstandings about the easement and its requirements.
The Land Trust Standards and Practices (Standards)
are a set of guidelines for how to run a land trust legally, ethically, and in the public interest, with a sound program of land transactions and land stewardship. The Standards are considered the best practices in easement stewardship and can provide a framework for your easement program. Standard 11D discusses Landowner Relationships—specifically, that organizations should:
- Maintain regular contact with owners of conservation easement properties to maintain relationships and avoid potential easement conflicts
- Establish systems to track changes in land ownership
- When the property changes hands, attempt to meet with the new owner or property manager and provide information in writing about the conservation easement and the land trust’s stewardship policies and procedure
Tracking Changes in Ownership
A critical moment in easement stewardship occurs each time the property transfers. While the original easement donor is typically familiar with the preservation organization and understands the easement terms, a subsequent owner may not. Proactive communication with a new easement property owner can help ensure they understand and comply with the terms of the easement. Developing procedures to ensure your organization tracks changes in easement property ownership, along with establishing contact with new owners, aligns with the best practices in easement stewardship.
There are several ways preservation organizations typically monitor changes in easement property ownership. Using a combination of these methods is recommended to ensure wider coverage, as each method individually may not be completely effective.
Most preservation organizations include language in their easement document contemplating a sale or transfer of the property. This may be a required written notice to the easement-holding organization, while some organizations also include a right of first refusal. For example, in the National Trust’s model easement, the Notice of Proposed Sale language is as follows:
Grantor [property owner] shall promptly notify Grantee [easement-holder] in writing of any proposed offer to sell the Property or of any listing of the Property for sale and provide the opportunity for Grantee [easement-holder] to explain the terms of the Easement to the real estate listing agent and potential new owners prior to sale closing.
Including language in the easement deed may encourage owners to be proactive with the easement-holding organization when anticipating the sale of their property. Easement-holding organizations can coordinate with the real estate agent to answer questions from potential buyers regarding the easement. In certain places, easements are a commonly used preservation tool, while in other areas, they are less common. Ensuring the real estate agent can answer basic questions about the easement restrictions can educate potential buyers about the obligations assumed by buying the property.
In an ideal world, property owners would always notify the easement-holding organization when the property is listed for sale. However, this may not always occur, and there are other methods to engage property owners on this topic. For example, an easement inspection provides an opportunity to discuss if the owner has any intention of selling the property in the near future. If you do not meet with the owner or representative during the inspection, you may include a question in the written notification or follow-up asking if the owner intends to sell the property prior to the next inspection.
Coordination with Municipal Government
Depending upon the service area of your easement program, coordinating with municipal governments may help identify changes in ownership. Providing a list of your easement properties to the municipal planning/historic preservation office could connect new owners with the easement-holding organization. If a new owner seeks to obtain a building permit, the municipal government can inform the property owner they must also seek the approval of the easement-holding organization for the project. This coordination can help ensure that the property owner is communicating with the easement-holding organization, regardless of their ownership tenure. In Washington, DC, the Office of Planning/Historic Preservation Office has an overview of historic preservation easements on their website
, which includes a list of easement-holding organizations and a list of registered historic preservation easements updated annually.
As of the writing of this post, the real estate website Zillow can track public residential real estate listings. Zillow has a feature that allows registered users to “Save Homes,” which can provide email notifications when a property is listed for sale, when the price drops, and when it sells. This only tracks properties that are publicly listed through a real estate agent, it does not appear to create notifications when a property transfers through a private sale. Depending on the size of and types of properties in your easement portfolio, taking the time to save each residential property may be another way to track changes in ownership.
As previously discussed in a story on Preservation Leadership Forum
on funding easement stewardship, another way to track changes in ownership is through the use of transfer fees. This is a right placed in the easement deed for the easement-holding organization to collect a small fee any time an easement property transfers. While this can help notify the organization that the property is transferring, it must be identified by a title company for it to work effectively.
Outreach to New Easement Property Owners
You learn an easement property has a new owner – what next? Reaching out proactively to introduce your organization, the easement, and the primary contact at your organization can help the new property owner get acclimated to this unique relationship. One outreach option is sending an introduction letter to the new property owner. The National Trust has developed a template introduction letter you can download
and tailor to your organization’s needs.
The first face-to-face or phone interaction with a new easement property owner should include reviewing the easement’s terms and introducing your organization’s approach to ongoing easement stewardship. Reviewing the easement terms with a new owner can be a helpful way to understand the owner’s future plans for the property and any potential conflicts with the easement restrictions. Discussing the ongoing interactions between the owner and your organization, such as the frequency of easement inspections and the process for requesting the organization’s approval, will help acclimate new owners to the easement-holding organization. While your organization may not have the resources to dedicate this level of attention to every new property owner, it can be an invaluable approach when managing an easement property with complex restrictions or violations.
As you explore your organization’s easement policies and procedures, developing methods for tracking changes in property ownership is a critical part of proactive, consistent easement stewardship. Using one or more of these methods can help ensure new owners are familiar with the easement and its requirements. As a result, organizations can uphold the continued preservation of the property as envisioned by the easement donor.
Raina Regan is the senior manager of easements at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.