Historic trusts promote facade easements as a backstop to local preservation laws. If a city chose to ignore those laws, some preservationists argue, the trust that holds the easement could step in to protect the streetscape.
But the overwhelming majority of easements have been donated in the District and New York, which have two of the nation's strongest preservation programs.
Plaques mark homes with easements.
_____Rich With History_____
Interactive: How historic easements work and who profits from them.
Graphic: The number of property owners applying to have their home or commercial building certified as contributing to a designated historical district has increased dramatically.
Map: Washington is the nation's leading city for historic facade easements, with easements protecting about 960 properties, many clustered in upscale neighborhoods.
Loophole Pays Off on Upscale Buildings (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
Tax Break Turns Into Big Business (The Washington Post, Dec 13, 2004)
Why One Building Lost Its Character While Another Didn't (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2004)
As Word Spreads, Clamor to Donate Grows (The Washington Post, Dec 13, 2004)
In Washington, laws protect every home in a designated historic district. Owners who want to alter their facades must apply to the city for approval by the preservation office and its review board.
Board Chairman Tersh Boasberg said he was unaware of a single instance in the past decade in which his board approved a facade change later blocked by a trust. He declined to say whether he believes easements have value, but he has not placed an easement on his Cleveland Park home, assessed at more than $1.7 million. Boasberg co-teaches a course at Georgetown University Law Center with historic preservation specialist J. Peter Byrne, who is less reticent about the tax value of easements.
"I think," he said, "that the effects of this are fraudulent."
In New York, officials are confident they can protect vintage buildings without easements, said Mark Silberman, general counsel for the city's landmarks commission.
"We are by far the biggest, most sophisticated historic preservation commission in the country," he said. "The landmarks commission will not allow the facades of these buildings to be ruined."
Relying on nonprofits as a final line of defense is unwise, George Mason University professor James D. Riggle said. Nonprofit trusts are reluctant to sue their contributors, he said.
"The first time you sue one of your prominent donors, you're done," he said.
On its Web site, the National Architectural Trust quotes a donor who praises the trust, saying he asked to alter his facade and received the organization's blessing "in only eight days."
At the L'Enfant Trust, "we have requests for changes daily," said the trust's president, Carol Goldman. Those requests include such things as changing exterior colors and adding to the rear of a rowhouse. Most are approved rapidly, she said.
"We are pretty sensitive to these being homes," she said, "and people who own historic properties are pretty protective of them."
Officials at the L'Enfant Trust and another D.C. nonprofit, the Preservation Trust, said they have never sued to enforce an easement. The Foundation for Preservation of Historic Georgetown -- which has a reputation for strict enforcement and for mandating easements that go well beyond facades to include interior spaces, open space and trees -- has gone to court over three properties, once forcing an owner to tear down an unapproved addition. It lost its last lawsuit in 1997, after a seven-year battle.
Karen Leonel, executive director of the Capitol Historic Trust, said her trust can protect facades from deterioration as well as improper changes.