Those who take a deep interest in Charleston have many opportunities to help protect this special city, primarily through awareness, speaking, voting, and other forms of engagement. Thousands have and continue to play an important role in preserving and maintaining our fragile historic buildings.
But one of the lesser-known ways to ensure that Charleston looks and feels like Charleston recently reaffirmed its worth.
Hundreds of private owners have given their properties historical relief to provide them with additional protection from unwanted future changes – a protection not granted by existing city ordinances. These reliefs are legal agreements that are administered by non-profit protection groups and that must review and sign off every change.
The Historic Charleston Foundation holds nearly 400 of these easements and alliances. The Preservation Society of Charleston holds another 80 or so. The documents themselves vary greatly in length and specificity of exactly what is protected. Many deal with architectural interior elements, the future subdivision of a property and possible re-uses, which are of crucial importance for maintaining the character of the city.
The Foundation had one such relief for the Carroll Building, a large, mixed-use structure on East Bay and Market streets that housed restaurants and office space. When the current owners, in violation of the easement, applied for permission to convert accommodation into a 50-room hotel, the Foundation took them to federal court. The dispute was recently settled in a way that stalled hotel plans, a victory for both utility and those of us concerned about disruptive “hotelification” of Charleston.
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Such disputes about the use of a property are rather rare; Most easements exist for houses on established residential streets. Commercial buildings are a different story, however, and the Foundation felt it needed to take a stand as it has growing concerns that an overabundance of downtown hotels – especially around the city market – is altering Charleston’s viability and the balance too far in Direction of visitors and absence brings from residents.
“We had a lot of conversations about the variety of uses and how important this is for the health of our city. What worries us is the desire to move office buildings to something else, ”said Foundation President and CEO Winslow Hastie. “This is a significant victory, not only because we prevented a hotel from entering this building, but also because it sends a message and sets a precedent for regulating its use. … As values escalate in Charleston there will be so much more pressure to focus on maximum and best use, but what is 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 may be familiar with land protection measures, such as those protecting undeveloped land on Wadmalaw Island and in the ACE Basin. However, the foundation has pursued such agreements to protect historic downtown properties for more than half a century. It began largely in the Ansonborough neighborhood, where endangered historic homes were bought, repaired, and sold after restrictive agreements were made in the deeds that restricted the ways buyers could change property. The relief program grew after the federal tax law was amended to recognize the donation of certain property rights and allow for income tax deduction based on the property’s reduced value. Donors often want to ensure that their property is preserved in the long term, but such tax breaks can also motivate them.
With this new example of how easements can help, we’d like to encourage more property owners to contact a protection group to discuss possible relief for their historic property. Such a deal could benefit them both through a tax break and greater security that what attracted them to the property won’t change after it changes hands. As we saw this month, such protection can affect not just a single property, but the larger city as well.