How are preservation organizations that hold easements conducting monitoring visits while we are in the midst of a pandemic? We reached out to five different staff members from preservation organizations across the United States to hear how they’ve updated their practices to continue their easement stewardship obligations. These organizations have developed site visit protocols designed with the safety and health of their staff, consultants, and property owners as a priority.
Carissa Demore, Team Leader for Preservation Services, Historic New England
When COVID-19 escalated in early March, Historic New England quickly cancelled site visits to properties in our preservation easement program to ensure the safety of property owners and our team. At the same time, we recognized that the majority of the properties we protect across the region are private homes. So as property owners took shelter from the pandemic, they were spending more time with the buildings and landscapes we help them preserve, and we soon saw an uptick in project proposals and questions about routine maintenance. There are also a handful of properties in our portfolio undergoing major rehabilitation projects this year and the pandemic has not significantly slowed those construction plans. We were able to provide a lot of support through video conferences, phone calls, and emails, but we were eager to get back in the field.
As the New England states reopen, we have been able to resume site visits with some important new safety protocols. For example, we are only visiting the exteriors of occupied properties, we are wearing masks throughout the visit, and conversations with owners are largely still happening over the phone or by video conference to limit our on-site interactions. Historic New England has also provided appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for our staff team to do these visits, including masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies. Thankfully, New England is relatively compact, so no overnight travel is necessary and our team can get to properties in their personal vehicles. For unoccupied properties, which include the sites where big construction projects are underway, we ask contractors to provide their health and safety plans, after which we can consider walking through interior spaces with the project manager to see work as it progresses. In all of our work, the safety and comfort of our property owners and staff team are our top priority, which means flexibility and advance communication are key.
Cindy Nasky, Director, Preservation Programs, Colorado Historical Foundation
Careful and ‘calculated-risk’ easement monitoring inspections have resumed for staff at the Colorado Historical Foundation and include the use of a small camper, which feels more comfortable than a hotel room. Prior to inspections, property owners are informed that an inspector is coming “to see their property, but not them.” The site visit and photographs continue the monitoring and baseline documentation of the easements in our portfolio. Equally, if not more important, is the cultivated relationship and level of open communication between the owner and the Foundation. Therefore, phone chats and virtual meetings are being scheduled with each property contact to personally connect about their property and to discuss any issues or challenges they may be experiencing. During such a stressful time, the Foundation has worked to be available to the owners and sensitive to the challenges posed by this difficult time. In a weird sense, this all seems like an opportunity to reinforce our partnership and working relationship in the care of these important historic sites.
April Wood, Manager of Easements & Technical Outreach, Historic Charleston Foundation
Historic Charleston Foundation has approximately 380 easement and covenant properties in Charleston and the Lowcountry that we inspect each year. The majority are exterior easements, but we do have a number of interior easements. Our inspections are spread out through the year, starting in January and completed in early December. Notes and photographs are taken on each elevation of the structure and of the property. Post inspection reports are mailed out to the easement owners upon completion.
The coronavirus pandemic and consequent lock-downs required us to pause our annual easement inspections in mid-March. We did not resume inspections until mid-July, unfortunately when the Charleston heat is at its highest! Our inspections look much different than they did pre-pandemic, mainly because we must work at a faster pace to finish by the end of the year. Due to safety concerns, we are not conducting any interior inspections at this time. After participating in the Preservation Partners Network Revolving Fund Convening on April 28th, we modified our inspection process to be more similar to the L’Enfant Trust inspection process. Rather than taking photos and notes on each elevation, we now take only photos and compare these photos to inspection photos from the previous year. This significantly cuts down our field time, protecting us and the property owner if we happen to see them. Masks, of course, are worn the entire time.
Having only recently resumed inspections, it is too early to determine whether the revised process will become a permanent one. The reduced field time required for the new format does not seem to result in a less thorough inspection. Although the coronavirus remains a concern, we feel it is important to try to maintain our regular inspections. The inspections have allowed us to check in with our property owners, both to confirm there are no violations and to continue fostering good and communicative relationships with these stewardship partners. In fact, as a result of the pandemic, homeowners who are typically at work when we complete our inspections are home. Many have felt cooped up and make a point to meet with us during our inspection, often with lists of questions about things that should and should not be done to their historic house or to verify whether certain projects can be done under the terms of the easement.
Although we put a hold on inspections March-July, we continued to conduct regular construction visits when work was underway on easement properties. The work was generally exterior, and we felt comfortable with the interaction since we were all wearing masks and the meetings were typically no more than an hour. Assuming we do not have another lockdown, or a hurricane, we should be back on track with our inspection schedule in the late fall. At this point, it seems unlikely that interior inspections will resume in 2020, unless a property is vacant.
Suzanne Germann, Director of Grants & Easements, Landmarks Illinois
Landmarks Illinois holds close to 550 preservation easements mostly in the Chicagoland area. Our annual inspections are conducted by two contracted architects who visit and photograph each property. The vast majority of our easements protect just the exterior of the property and the monitors only meet with owners upon request. Therefore, our monitoring process has not been impacted by social distancing restrictions for exterior easements. Landmarks Illinois, does however, hold easements on several interior spaces. This year we plan to postpone those inspections. If the social distancing restrictions continue into next year and owners are not comfortable with an interior inspection, we plan to work with the owners to photograph the interiors and document the conditions.
Brad McDonald, Easement Stewardship Coordinator, Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR)
While DHR Easement Program staff remains ready and available to assist property owners, project stakeholders, and interested citizens with their requests, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic has required our program to adapt our processes in order to protect the health and safety of our employees, easement property owners, and the citizens of Virginia as a whole. Because the ability to meet our stewardship responsibilities and assist individuals with their requests often rests on facilitating face-to-face on-site meetings, DHR's Easement Program has instituted the following measures to protect against the spread of COVID-19:
- Staff will continue working with easement property owners and applicants through remote/virtual means as often as possible;
- For issues pertaining to project review or easement interpretation, meetings will be conducted via telephone, video calling, or virtual conferencing software applications whenever applicable;
- All monitoring visits and necessary on-site project meetings are only conducted in outdoor spaces with all participants following accepted social distancing guidelines while wearing the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). To the greatest extent possible, DHR is striving for “no-contact” monitoring visits with any issues or alterations discussed with the owner over the phone or via email prior to the visit; and
- Finally, if property owners do not wish to have their property inspected due to concerns about COVID-19, DHR staff has developed an electronic self-reporting survey form for the property owner to complete and return.
While the task of stewarding DHR’s over 650 easement properties comprising approximately 76,000 acres of conserved lands has certainly grown more challenging as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the combination of flexible, solution-oriented property owners and program staff as well as the creative use of available technology has allowed DHR to maintain continuity of service during the past several months. While we certainly hope for rapid improvement in the coronavirus public health crisis, for the foreseeable future, DHR will continue to seek to improve and adapt its workflows in order to better serve our owners and customers.
These five organizations demonstrate that with some careful planning you can resume easement monitoring. If your organization has not yet resumed easement monitoring, we encourage you to follow any state or local guidelines related to the COVID-19 public health emergency, while considering what approach makes sense for your organization to ensure the health and safety of all parties. We encourage you to post on Forum Connect if you need advice for your own program or want to continue the conversation on how to continue easement stewardship in the era of the COVID-19.#Legal#easements#coronavirus
Raina Regan is the director of the easement program at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.