Your Views: Enforce the Hugo Black easement

Photo Credit: Office of Historic Alexandria

To the editor:

When considering the matter of the proposed addition on the landmark house that was owned by former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, it is important to recognize that the easement Black placed on his property in 1969 was done as an act of preservation leadership under the Virginia Open Space Land Act of 1966. The purpose of the act was to “preserve permanent open-space land in urban areas.” The easement Black gave was the first in the city and the second in the state to be given under the act. The Open Space Land Act, Va. Code § 10.1-1704 (italics added), states:

“No open-space land, the title to or interest or right in which has been acquired under this chapter and which has been designated as open-space land under the authority of this chapter, shall be converted or diverted from open-space land use unless (i) the conversion or diversion is determined by the public body to be (a) essential to the orderly development and growth of the locality and (b) in accordance with the official comprehensive plan for the locality in effect at the time of conversion or diversion and (ii) there is substituted other real property which is (a) of at least equal fair market value, (b) of greater value as permanent open-space land than the land converted or diverted and (c) of as nearly as feasible equivalent usefulness and location for use as permanent open-space land as is the land converted or diverted. The public body shall assure that the property substituted will be subject to the provisions of this chapter.” The act also provides that “Insofar as the provisions of this act are inconsistent with the provisions of any other law, the provisions of this act shall be controlling.”

In other words, because of Black’s gift of the easement on his gardens, neither the owners of the property, nor the Department of Historic Resources has the right to approve construction on the protected open space unless it is “essential” to the city’s development and replacement open space is provided. To date, DHR has not even attempted to make the required finding and no replacement space has been given to the taxpayers.

Ever since Black gave the easement, the property has been assessed for taxes at a dramatically reduced rate under the widely publicized assumption that the gardens could not be built upon. Thus, for almost 50 years the taxpayers of Alexandria have invested in the preservation of this historic open space in the form of reduced property taxes. We have every right to expect that the state and city governments will honor Black’s intentions and enforce the easement as required by the law. Council should deny the proposed addition at its April 13 public hearing.

-John Thorpe Richards, Jr., member, Historic Alexandria Foundation board