Your Views: Black House is in compliance with easement

133
619 S. Lee St. has been owned by former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, former Alexandria mayor Edgar Snowden and Thomas Vowell, a prominent Alexandria merchant. (Courtesy Photo)
Facebooktwittermail

To the editor:

A great deal has been said about the easement governing 619 S. Lee St. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources has provided a letter to the Alexandria City Council out- lining the easement program and process. This letter, printed below, demonstrates that VDHR is enforcing the easement and is fully aware and supportive of the project under the terms of the easement. I am submitting this letter to provide clarity and transparency about the status of compliance with the easement held by VDHR.

-Paige Pollard, Commonwealth Preservation Group

(A civil fight over an Old Town landmark)

Dear Mr. Jinks:

As you may know, the Commonwealth of Virginia, Board of Historic Resources (Board) holds a historic preservation easement on the Vowell-Snowden-Black House property at 619 South Lee Street in Alexandria. The professional staff of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Department of Historic Resources (DHR) administers the easement program on behalf of the Board.

Although the Commonwealth of Virginia and the City of Alexandria share similar goals, the terms, conditions, and restrictions set forth in a historic preservation easement held by the Board constitute a contract between the Board and the property owner and are separate and distinct from the ordinances and restrictions imposed by the Alexandria Board of Architectural Review (BAR). Because these processes are separate and distinct, the BAR has no ability to enforce the terms of such an easement and is not bound by those terms. Further, regardless of what the BAR may allow with respect to a property encumbered by an easement held by the Board, the property owner must still comply with the terms of the easement.

Any approvals or disapprovals made by DHR with respect to the easement on the Vowell-Snowden-Black House should have no determinative bearing on decisions made by the BAR, and any decision made by the BAR will have no determinative bearing on DHR’s administration of the easement.

We remain confident in DHR’s administration of the easement program and in DHR’s ability to steward the Commonwealth’s historic assets. If you have any additional questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Julie V. Langan Director [Virginia Department of Historic Resources]

Facebooktwittermail
instagram

1 COMMENT

  1. A comment from John Thorpe Richards Jr.:

    The two letters running under the headline “Black House is in compliance with easement” in today’s paper are a fascinating example of the times we live in.

    The first letter, from Ms. Paige Pollard, a former employee of the VDHR and now a “consultant” for the owners of the Hugo Black House, announces that the second letter, from the director of the VDHR “demonstrates that VDHR is enforcing the easement and is fully aware and supportive of the project under the terms of the easement.” But the carefully worded letter from VDHR says nothing about being “supportive of the project.”

    Instead, if you read the letter from VDHR carefully it makes two points.

    1) That the restrictions imposed by the Alexandria Zoning Ordinance applicable to the Old and Historic District which are supposed to be applied by Board of Architectural Review (and by inference the City Council on review), are different from those used by the VDHR in administering its easement program, and the decision by the VDHR should have no influence on the BAR (or City Council) when it reviews the project – and visa-versa. “Any approvals or disapprovals made by DHR with respect to the easement on the Vowell-Snowden-Black House should have no determinative bearing on decisions made by the BAR, and any decision made by the BAR will have no determinative bearing on DHR’s administration of the easement.”

    This is basically the same thing that Preservation Virginia and Historic Alexandria Foundation have said in their submissions to the BAR and City Council. Unfortunately – very unfortunately – several members of the BAR who voted to approve that development of the Black House property said they were persuaded to do so because the plans had been extensively reviewed and approved by the VDHR. But as HAF told the BAR at the time:

    “[W]e believe that the staff of the VDHR would be shocked to learn that their easement decisions formed any basis for an approval of demolition or certificate of appropriateness by the BAR. … Contrary to the argument that the VDHR easement approval should be taken as that agency’s blessing of the project, the BAR should assume that the VDHR is counting on the local BAR to exercise independent judgment and control in preserving this historic Landmark within the City.” (HAF letter to BAR of Feb. 1, 2019)

    The VDHR letter confirms that HAF and Preservation Virginia were correct in warning the BAR against basing its own preservation decisions on the easement enforcement judgments of the VDHR.

    2) The Second point the VDHR asserts in its letter is that “BAR has no ability to enforce the terms of such an easement and is not bound by those terms.” This again is a very carefully worded statement which is likely to be misunderstood. The BAR took similar pronouncements by the City Staff to require them to ignore the easement altogether—so much so that they refused to read it. It was because they failed to do so that they overlooked that the easement contains the official certification of the Hugo Black House and Gardens as a Landmark – a ‘principal historical … site … of State-wide or national importance.”

    But the VDHR letter never suggests that the VDHR should not consider the landmark certification just because it is contained in the easement. (In fact, it is pretty clear the VDHR itself lost track of that important fact because it has failed in its statutorily mandated duty to list the Hugo Black House and Gardens on the Virginia Landmarks Register.)

    Nor does the VDHR letter suggest that the BAR (or City Council) are at liberty to ignore the provisions of the Open Space Land Act just because the VDHR is the easement holder. As Historic Alexandria Foundation and others has previously shown, https://alextimes.com/2019/03/your-views-enforce-the-hugo-black-easement/, the Open Space Land Act does not allow VDHR or anyone else to permit building on open space protected by the Act unless it is essential to the City’s development plans and replacement open space is provided. The Virginia Attorney General has said so in a formal opinion. “[H]olders of easements authorized under the OSLA are prohibited from releasing the easements unless certain statutory criteria are met and upon the substitution of like-kind land for the release of the easement-encumbered land.” 2012 Op. Va. Atty Gen. at 32. There has never been any suggestion by VDHR that the development plans for the Hugo Black Property meet this test, or that they even considered it. But that Alexandria Zoning Ordinance requires the City to consider it.

    “Whenever any provision of any state or federal statute or other city ordinance or regulation imposes a greater requirement or a higher standard than is required by this ordinance, the provision of such state or federal statute or other city ordinance or regulation shall govern.” Alex. Zon. Ord. 1-200.

    The only thing that is surprising about the VDHR letter is that it was not provided to Historic Alexandria Foundation or any of the other commissions and organizations that have written VDHR in opposition to these development plans. The Director of VDHR is duty bound to “provide technical advice and assistance to individuals, groups and governments conducting historic preservation programs and regularly to seek advice from the same on the effectiveness of Department programs.” Va. Code § 10.1-2202(11). But despite three unanswered letters from HAF on the subject of the Hugo Black House easement, this letter was provided to the owner’s consultant for last minute publication in the newspapers before the critical City Council hearing.

    It is unfortunate that the VDHR has chosen to exercise its statutory duties to protect this historic landmark without prior notice to, or an opportunity for the local preservation community to comment before they made their decisions in this case. Hopefully the City Council will do a better job and will exercise its acknowledged powers to save this historic landmark from development.

    John Thorpe Richards, Jr.