Your Views: Uphold the Black house easement

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Photo Credit: Office of Historic Alexandria
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To the editor:

The home of the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, also known as the Vowell-Snowden House, and featured in “Seaport in Virginia, George Washington’s Alexandria,” published in 1949 by my aunt, Gay Montague Moore, is subject to a preservation and open space easement given to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources by Justice and Mrs. Black in 1969. The intent of the Blacks to preserve the garden grounds of the property as open space is quite clear from that easement.

It is the largest private garden in Old Town, comprising the equivalent of 12 townhouse lots, some of which were cleared of existing structures when the Blacks created their garden to include a swimming pool and tennis court. The open space surrounding 619 S. Lee St. is rarer and more significant as a landmark than the house itself because of its design and ownership history.

The VDHR has previously rejected less invasive and space-consuming proposals to alter the character and amount of open space at 619 S. Lee by other owners of the property. Without public participation, the VDHR has chosen to preliminarily approve the proposed substantial alteration to the house and garden by the present owners.

The City of Alexandria has a financial interest in this matter because it has foregone substantial real estate taxes that would have applied to the property had it not been subject to the historic easement since 1969. This fact and Virginia law give the city legal standing to intervene in the matter and seek enforcement of the terms of the easement as specified by Virginia law. The failure to do so would seriously damage the ability to preserve open space through the use of easements in the city and the entire state of Virginia.

Four members of the Alexandria City Council attended the recent 25th anniversary banquet of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust. I hope this creates a serious interest in the importance of respecting the terms of open space preservation easements in our community.

I write as a past president of the Historic Alexandria Foundation, the Old Town Civic Association, the Northern Virginia Conservation Council, the Conservation Council of Virginia and as a 12-year chairman of the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission, which is the local government agency holding easements preserving open space associated with properties in Old Town.

Allowing this proposal to go forward would jeopardize the future of the easement program in Alexandria and the rest of Virginia.

-Robert Latane Montague III, Alexandria

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