Lessons from the Pandemic: Managing the Nation’s Largest Easement Program

The L’Enfant Trust is the nation’s largest preservation easement-holder, protecting more than 1,150 historic properties and surrounding open space across Washington, D.C. To maintain the integrity of our easement program and continue to protect the rich and varied architectural fabric of DC’s historic streetscapes, we conduct an annual photographic inspection of each of our easemented properties to ensure the properties are in good condition and no exterior changes have been done without review and approval by the Trust.

However, with the hurdles of the pandemic, the Trust could not complete its 2021 inspection as scheduled. After a year off, here’s what we learned after recently completing our 2022 inspection:  

  • Construction back logs slowed down projects. More time working at home allowed many property owners to begin home improvement projects. With so many people opting to begin construction and restoration projects during the pandemic, design, architecture, and construction teams were busy. Often, we found that projects we had approved prior to the pandemic hadn’t been completed, or had completely stalled, by the time of our annual inspection nearly two years later!  
  • Supply chain issues caused many materials (windows, doors, roofing materials, lumber) approved in design to not be available by the time construction began. That meant many architects and property owners had to come back to The L’Enfant Trust for re-approval for a substitute material, manufacturer, etc. We made sure to prioritize review and approval of materials and plans that were re-submitted so our secondary review wouldn’t slow down construction.
  • Send a welcome letter to new property owners. As seen across the country, the pandemic prompted many easemented property owners to sell their homes in the city and move to less populated and more rural areas. With new property owners taking ownership as previous owners moved away, comes the challenge of educating them on the responsibilities of owning an easemented property. Sending a welcome letter to new property owners informs them of the ins & outs of living in a home protected by a conservation easement, when to come to the Trust for project review, and communicating that The L’Enfant Trust can be a helpful resource for advice on preserving and caring for a historic building.  
  • Remind property owners via email & social media of their obligations to owning an easemented property. Reminders on social media and via email can help keep us top-of-mind for property owners. Through our monthly newsletter, we share helpful guidance and tips for property owners considering exterior projects, such as the installation of solar panels, window replacements, or a new paint job. Social media and email can also be a good way to make contact with new property owners interested in learning more about our work and ways they can get involved.
  • Flexibility with property owners. With COVID-19 upending life and the way we live in the city, it’s been important to be flexible with property owners on their plans for renovations, additions or other changes. For example, the Trust worked with many of its commercial building owners to quickly approve plans for covered patio space for outside dining and entertainment so businesses could continue to serve the community during the pandemic. We recognize that our easemented properties are not museum properties — they’re living, breathing historic places that need to adapt to changing times while still maintaining their architectural integrity.   
  • Collaboration is key. Managing property changes, improvements, additions, and window replacements of our more than 1,150 easemented buildings would not be possible without collaboration with DC’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO). HPO is an incredibly helpful resource; alerting us to new building permits filed for easemented properties and corroborating on review of project proposals to easemented buildings in DC’s more than 30 historic districts. 

Despite skipping out on a year of easement inspections due to COVID-19, we ultimately did not see an uptick in the number of easement violations, or severity of violations, compared to years prior. However, we’ve determined from an organizational perspective that it’s best practice for The L’Enfant Trust to conduct an annual inspection on easemented properties to ensure more serious violations do not occur. Continuing the practice of an annual inspection maintains the integrity of our 40+ year nationally recognized program and reestablishes a vital touchpoint with property owners.

For more on owning an easemented property held by The L’Enfant Trust, visit our Property Owner’s Guide. You can also visit our Guides to Preserving Your Historic Exterior on specific issues facing the care of historic properties, such as historic window restoration, solar panel installation, shutter repair, and more.

Interested in donating a conservation easement on your historic property, but not sure where to begin? Visit our “Donating a Conservation Easement” webpage for an overview of the process and its benefits.

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Annual photography inspection shows installation of approved rooftop solar panels on 654 6th Street, NE. Many historic buildings can be great candidates for solar panels.
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Renovations and rear/side addition underway as captured during the annual photography inspection at 2475 Kalorama Road, NW.