Editorial: Easements show their worth in defending Charleston’s character | Editorials

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Editorial: Easements prove their value in protecting Charleston's character | Editorials

Those who care deeply about Charleston have many ways to help protect this special city, primarily by paying attention, speaking out, voting and other forms of engagement. Thousands also have played and continue to play an important role by preserving and maintaining our fragile historic buildings.

But one of the lesser known ways to ensure Charleston looks and feels like Charleston recently reaffirmed its worth.

Hundreds of private property owners have placed historic easements on their properties to give them added protection against undesirable future alterations — a protection not granted by existing city ordinances. These easements are legal agreements administered by nonprofit preservation groups that must review and sign off on any change.

The Historic Charleston Foundation holds almost 400 of these easements and covenants. The Preservation Society of Charleston holds another 80 or so. The documents themselves vary widely in length and specificity of exactly what’s protected. Many address interior architectural elements, future subdivision of a property and potential reuses, all critical to preserving the character of the city.

The foundation had such an easement on the Carroll Building, a large, mixed-use structure at East Bay and Market streets that has been home to restaurants and office space. When its current owners filed for accommodations approval to convert it to a 50-room hotel, in violation of the easement, the foundation took them to federal court. The dispute was recently settled in a way that blocks the hotel plans, a victory for both the easement program and for those of us concerned about the disturbing “hotelification” of Charleston.

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Such disputes over a property’s use are rather rare; most easements exist on homes on established residential streets. But commercial buildings are another story, and the foundation believed it needed to take a stand, because it has growing concerns that an overabundance of hotels downtown — particularly around the City Market — is changing Charleston’s livability and tipping its balance too far toward visitors and away from residents.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about the diversity of uses and how important that is to the health of our city. What we worry about is a wholesale desire to shift office buildings to something else,” Foundation President and CEO Winslow Hastie told us. “This is a significant victory not only because we prevented a hotel going into this building but also because it sends a message and establishes a precedent as far as us regulating use. … As the values in Charleston escalate, there are going to be so many more pressures to pivot to the highest and best use, but what’s the highest and best use for a property and its owner’s bank account is not necessarily the best use for the city.”

More people might be familiar with land conservation easements, such as those that protect undeveloped land on Wadmalaw Island and in the ACE Basin, but the foundation has pursued such deals to protect historic downtown properties for more than half a century. It began mostly in the Ansonborough neighborhood, where it bought endangered historic homes, fixed them up and sold them only after placing restrictive covenants on the deeds that limited how buyers could alter the property. The easement program grew after federal tax law changed to recognize the donation of certain property rights and allow for an income tax deduction based on the reduced value of the property. Donors often want to ensure their property’s preservation in perpetuity but also can be motivated by such tax breaks.

So with this fresh example of how easements can help, we would urge more owners to reach out to a preservation group about a possible easement on their historic property. Such a deal might benefit them through both a tax break and a greater peace of mind that what attracted them to the property won’t change after it changes hands. As we saw this month, such protection can affect not only an individual property but the larger city as well.