Preservation Easement Stewardship during the time of Coronavirus

By Special Contributor posted 05-05-2020 11:54

  

By Raina Regan and Casey DeHaven

How does the coronavirus impact preservation professionals responsible for ongoing easement stewardship? In the short-term, being unable to visit easement properties may delay project reviews and defer cyclical easement inspections. At the National Trust, while we are unable to travel to visit our easement properties in 25 states and  Washington D.C., we’re largely continuing our office-based program operations while working on long-term projects to improve our program administration.  

It is still too early to understand the long-term impacts of the coronavirus on our cyclical monitoring obligations and how we may need to adjust these practices moving forward. However, there are activities you may be able to conduct from the safety of your own home to improve your organization’s easement stewardship.

Anselma_Mill.jpg
The Mill at Anselma, Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. This National Historic Landmark 18th century mill and homestead operates as a historic site and is protected through restrictive covenants held by the National Trust. | Credit: National Trust for  Historic Preservation

Digital Outreach to Your Property Owners

If you have email addresses on file for your property owners, you may notify your easement property owners of any adjustments being made within your organization during this critical time, while taking care to adhere to your organization’s key messaging. This can include:

  • Updates on whether or not property owners can expect easement inspections during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Any changes to staff site visit protocols and what property owners may expect in both the short-term and long-term.
  • Reminders to continue to submit any project requests for review and approval and how to currently contact to your organization, e.g. staff are still available via email and phone.
  • Providing additional helpful, relevant resources and ideas for preservation-related, cyclical maintenance projects that property owners can easily do while at home. 

Update Your Digital Records

Working from a ‘home’ office offers the opportunity to either develop or update your organization’s easement-related database and related records, including property owner records. At the National Trust, our easement program files are almost entirely digital and we use an Access database to store important data on all easement properties held by the National Trust. Creating a simple Access database or an Excel spreadsheet to record easement property information, including an overall property view, current property owner and contact information, previous easement inspections, additional property details, and any project approvals, can save time and provide a more streamlined record-keeping protocol for your organization.

Occasionally, it can be difficult to get in touch with the current property owner if the organization was not notified by a recent change in property ownership. One way to verify the most up-to-date data on an easement property owner is to utilize respective County Geographic Information System (GIS) to update and confirm owner names and primary addresses. This information can be recorded in a simple Excel spreadsheet for each individual easement property. Unsure where to find your county or state’s GIS information? This website might provide a starting point you can also consult your county’s website.

Lowells_Boat_Shop.jpg
Lowell’s Boat Shop, Amesbury, Massachusetts. This National Historic Landmark and working museum is dedicated to the art and craft of wooden boat building and is protected by a preservation easement managed by the National Trust. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Update or Create Program Documents

For staff of easement-holding organizations, revising or drafting new easement-related policies or procedures is an activity well-suited for ‘home’ office work. Clearly written standard operating procedures will help your organization ensure consistent, long-term administration of your easement program. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Fully document your organization’s monitoring protocols. Revisit our Forum Webinar on Ensuring Perpetuity: Effective Easement Monitoring. Include any details relevant to conducting your monitoring from start to finish, from the scheduling, owner notification, site visit etiquette, report generation, and follow-up. Ideally, this document should allow a person unfamiliar with your organization to fully implement your monitoring program.
  • Document the ongoing operations of your easement program. The Forum Webinar on Building Easement Stewardship can provide a refresher on the best practices in consistent, proactive easement stewardship. For example, the National Trust has heard from preservation organizations looking to revise their easement funding structure; the story on Preservation Leadership Forum on Funding Easement Stewardship highlights best practices in funding your program.
  • Develop template documents to streamline your processes. The National Trust Easement Program uses a variety of Word and Outlook templates to quickly generate communications to property owners. In the Preservation Leadership Forum story on Tracking Changes in Easement Property Ownership, we’ve included our template letter to new property owners. Templates help improve workflows for standard tasks which are very common in easement stewardship work. Unsure how to make a template document? Here’s a tutorial on saving a Word document as a template.

Should I conduct in person site visits?

Before conducting any easement-related site visits (such as easement monitoring), you should review your state’s stay-at-home order. While you may be able to complete easement monitoring with adequate social distancing, you should still make a determination about the permissibility and necessity of these visits at this time. In consultation with your board and/or legal counsel, each organization should individually determine when it is appropriate to resume in person easement stewardship activities such as monitoring.

Conclusion

While there’s no “pause” button for an organization’s preservation easement administration during the coronavirus, the level of easement stewardship provided during this period will vary by organization.  Those staff responsible for easements may still receive project requests from property owners as some states have recognized construction work as an essential activity. Consider what activities included above are feasible given your program operations and capacity. Need specific advice? Reach out to other easement-holding organizations by posting to Forum Connect. There will be limitations to your easement administration as organizations keep their staff healthy and safe during this time period. Due to the perpetual nature of preservation easements, they’re one of the few certainties in our preservation work in a post-coronavirus world.

Resources

Raina Regan is the senior manager of easements at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Casey DeHaven is the manager of easements at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


#coronavirus
#easements

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