Forum Connect

Topic: Managing Easement Programs 

1.  Managing Easement Programs

Posted 06-05-2017 15:34

Hi Everyone,

We hold about 550 preservation easements across the state and are looking for a more efficient way of managing the properties including inspections, approved alterations, and communication with the owners.  We have one staff person to manage this program and we currently use Excel to keep track of all things easements. If your organization holds easements, how are you managing your programs? Is there any advice you can give?

Thank you!



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Suzanne Germann
Landmarks Illinois
Chicago IL
(312)922-1742
sgermann@landmarks.org
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2.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 06-06-2017 10:29

Hi Suzanne,

Great question! We are fortunate in that we manage our easement program in an all-digital environment, with almost all of our program archives digitized. This certainly makes managing our program easier, especially in having quick reference to easement documents, past communications, inspection photos, etc. The key to having an all-digital program is organized/standardized folders and file naming conventions. If you could obtain financial resources to digitize your files, I think you would find it would go a long way in helping you streamline your operations.

I also highly recommend reviewing the Land Trust Alliance Standards and Practices, particularly Standard 9G for Recordkeeping and Standard 11 for Conservation Easement Stewardship. I'm constantly getting ideas on how to improve our program based on these guidelines, and since each program is going to be a little different, it is always important to find tools that will work best for you.



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Raina Regan
Senior Manager of Easements
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Washington, DC
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3.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 06-06-2017 16:51
Hello Suzanne,

Do you feel that your current system isn't working well, or are you looking to see if generally there might be a predominant/better way to go about managing the various types of files and information related to an easement monitoring program?

I work with Raina and we have all of our files digitized, and a database that we use, but we also have more than one person in our easement program, and we do spend a lot of time managing our files in one way or another. There may be other ways to manage and store the content but it also matters that you have a system in place that is sustainable for your program and organization.

If you get the funding to digitize and create a database it isn't much good if the software becomes obsolete, or if it is too cumbersome for your staff to keep up with, only one staff member ever understands how to use and then retires, etc. You always want a system that can work well with the information you need for legal reasons and for ease of use in monitoring and reviewing/approving proposed alterations.

The way that we currently have our files organized and stored has evolved over time based on initiatives undertaken by different staff members, as we've tried out new and better ways to manage our program. I would say that if you are thinking of a change to consider a system that can  utilize your existing excel spreadsheets (which could possibly be imported into a database) so that you aren't totally remaking the wheel and expending resources on the additional hassle of translating all of that hard work to feed into a new system.

I wonder if it would also be worthwhile to reach out to nonprofit organizations and maybe even house museums (small staffs, limited resources, large collections with different records) to see how they have overhauled their collections databases. Some of this is specific to an easement program, like approval letters and monitoring photos, but some of this is about data management and organizational capacity.

Has anyone else out here undertaken this type of overhaul/data migration?

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Moira Nadal
Manager, Easement Program
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Washington DC
mnadal@savingplaces.org
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4.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 06-07-2017 12:40
Hi Suzanne,

Great question!  I work at The L'Enfant Trust in DC, and we have found our database to be crucial in maintaining our easement portfolio.  It is a Filemaker database, and every interaction that has to do with the property is put in the database--phone calls with the owner, requests for changes to the property, etc.  When you are keeping track of that many buildings it helps to have a quick reference for each property.  When a property owner or architect calls, I'm able to find the property in the database and get an idea of our past interactions/approvals issued, etc. We also have the ability through the database to produce certain form letters, an inspection checklist for monitoring the properties, and keep track of "open enforcement" issues--properties that we are currently working on/with.

We are also in the process of going completely digital! We recently sent out all of our easement files(1,136) to be scanned.   As Moira and Raina pointed out, naming conventions & storage are the main concerns for digitizing a large and diverse easement portfolio.  Our goal is that the files and database can be accessed by anyone in our office and make sense. The database acts as a guide map/quick reference and the digital files store the more in-depth information & correspondence for each property. Moving forward we will only accept digital submissions from property owners.

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Kate Kenwright
Historic Preservation Specialist
The L'Enfant Trust
Washington DC
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5.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 07-31-2017 12:12
Hi,

How our easement program data is managed has grown as our program has grown. I started out keeping track of everything in Excel, then migrated to MS Access, and then finally moved to Filemaker Pro. I keep all of the information about each property, generate stewardship reports, keep track of approvals, letters, etc from the database. Filemaker is an excellent program and I can't recommend it highly enough. (If you go that route I would be happy to help you get started.)

In practice, though, it doesn't do everything for us. I do not have the server version (upwards of $450 plus the monthly fee for hosting) and so when I am working in the field everything is done on paper with a clipboard and then entered when I get back to my office. This works well since when I'm in the field it is frequently in areas without cell service, or its raining, or I don't have a place to really sit and type. Nothing beats paper, pencil and a clipboard for this.

Likewise, conversations with property managers and ultimately approvals usually happen over email, so I keep track of those separately. I put the final decision in the database with the backup paperwork in the paper file.

Photo management is another potential nightmare and I'm curious how others managing this. I only keep a representative photo in the Filemaker database. Site visit photos are all stored on an external hard drive and for the last two years I have uploaded them to Flickr and put the link in the database and in the stewardship reports. (100 buildings x 30 photos per building x 20 years = a lot of photos that I don't necessarily need on my computer's hard drive.) This seems to be working really well. It is very helpful when our committee needs to review changes because I can just send them a link instead of sending photos back and forth and cluttering up everyone's emails and hard drives. And when I do have cell service on a visit, I can easily call up a high quality image on my phone to chat about something specific if necessary.

I hope this is helpful!

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Meg Campbell
Easement Program Director
Preservation Trust of Vermont
Bennington VT
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6.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 08-01-2017 11:19
Hi all,

Just wanted to let you know that The L'Enfant Trust owns the source code for our Filemaker Pro database that we've created over many years.  If anyone is interested in learning more about our database or acquiring a copy for your organization, you can contact me(kate@lenfant.org) and I can put you in touch with our developer.

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Kate Kenwright
Historic Preservation Specialist
The L'Enfant Trust
Washington DC
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7.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 08-04-2017 09:13
@Kate Kenwright and/or @Meg Campbell - A few follow-up questions about using Filemaker Pro for easement recordkeeping.

Do you have any other insight about Filemaker Pro and the process involved with converting either an Excel or Access document into the program?

Would you recommend hiring a contractor to set up Filemaker Pro for an easement program?

If you have digital files, such as photographs, stored on a server or external hard drive, can you link to those within Filemaker Pro?

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Raina Regan
Senior Manager of Easements
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Washington, DC
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8.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 08-04-2017 09:55
Hi Raina,

It is fairly easy to import data from spreadsheets or from other database programs into Filemaker. You'll have to set up all your fields first and then upon import be sure that the data gets put in the right places.

If you haven't worked with Filemaker before I highly recommend getting someone to help you set it up. It is a lot easier than Access but it still takes a bit of getting used to.

There is a way of linking photo files from within Filemaker (I think it is called "portals") but it hasn't been something that I have found works easily when you have 30 or so photos per record per year. It gets cumbersome very quickly.  A consultant can give your more information if you are interested.

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Meg Campbell
Easement Program Director
Preservation Trust of Vermont
Bennington VT
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9.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 08-07-2017 14:30
@Raina Regan

I'm not sure how our data was imported into Filemaker as it was quite a long time ago.  I do know that the Trust used Microsoft Access for a while before purchasing the database.

We developed our particular Filemaker database with a company that specializes in Filemaker. Besides the benefits of developing a personalized database, this is great for a small nonprofit with no IT department.  Not every problem that we have is easily solvable for an organization with limited/no programming experience.  We're able to call our developer if there are larger changes we'd like to make to the database or with troubleshooting questions.

Our photos are stored on a computer, various external hard drives for backup, and in the database.  They are connected to the database through a file path.  This is very convenient--it would be annoying/time consuming to have to open up a separate file every time you wanted to see a photo of the property that you're working on in the database.  It is great for quick reference.  We're moving to the cloud in the near future and this is a feature that we plan to keep--the database will link to the google drive where the photos will be stored.

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Kate Kenwright
Historic Preservation Specialist
The L'Enfant Trust
Washington DC
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10.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 08-01-2017 18:33
Thanks, Meg.
Our particular easement is managed by the NTHP, but this is great information which I will forward to our various area Historic Resources Commissions.

Thank you.

Melinda Gustin
Newlands Mansion, NHL
Landscape Historian

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Melinda Gustin
Reno NV
775-333-9393
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11.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 09-05-2017 16:09

Thank you to all those who work in the preservation easement community who have shared your questions and resources here on Forum Connect! Thinking big picture about your easement program, what are current pressing and emerging issues with your easement program? We are developing discussion topics for this year's Easement Roundtable at PastForward and want to hear from you on what issues are at the forefront of your easement work.

We know each easement program is unique and what may be applicable for one program may not be for another. We hope to develop discussion topics that meet the current needs of a variety of preservation easement programs and look forward to hearing your suggestions. We will share the topics ahead of time on Forum Connect, so you can come prepared with your questions or success stories to provide examples to other easement practitioners.  



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Raina Regan
Senior Manager of Easements
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Washington, DC
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12.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 09-06-2017 09:34
Raina,
The biggest issues for us are 1) targeted solicitation and cultivation, and 2) enforcement. On the first, we are trying to balance the investment of staff time in trying to develop leads for key new easements with all of our other program needs. We're finding that with little personal, face to face, time investment we only get 'not interested' answers. So we're moving more to a model of 1-2 at a time, personal level interactions, and very strategic because that's all we have time for. But maybe that's a good thing because of our number two issue. It's the same old story there, with second, third, fourth generation owners not understanding the easement and/or respecting and following it's requirements. We don't use the real enforcement powers in the easement because we don't want the potential bad PR about forcing families to become economically distressed. So our strategy has been to wait out the property turning over, sometimes decades, and then working with the new owners. To address the current situation, we've chosen to take a more 'make friends' approach offering 0% interest loans to repair issues, offering free project planning from architects and contractors, and considering doing public rehab workshops on site to make needed repairs. So far no takers though.

We'd also be interested in creative ways to assist property owners in funding the easement fees. That's probably the second biggest reason we get 'not interested' answers.
Kirk

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Kirk Huffaker
Executive Director
Preservation Utah
Salt Lake City UT
(801) 533-0858 (105)
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13.  RE: Managing Easement Programs

Posted 10-30-2017 17:17

Kirk, thank you for your great suggestions!

We're looking forward to the Easement Roundtable at PastForward on Wednesday 11/15 at 3 p.m. This year's Easement Roundtable format will be guided small group discussions regarding four topics related to easement stewardship and program management. This year's Easement Roundtable topics are:

  • Record Keeping
  • Baseline Documentation
  • Property Owner Relationships
  • Enforcement

If you are unable to attend the Easement Roundtable in person, but still want to be part of the conversation, feel free to contribute your questions or comments on any of these topics here on Forum Connect. For those of you joining us in Chicago, we hope you'll come with your burning questions and look forward to lively conversations!



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Raina Regan
Senior Manager of Easements
National Trust for Historic Preservation
Washington, DC
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