by Randy Williams, president Chestnut Hill Historical Society
We have all seen long-vacant, protected properties eventually preserved spectacularly and reused successfully. We have also seen significant but unprotected treasures lost forever to unfortunate redevelopment. Considering this, many in the community are glad that the Greylock estate has not been redeveloped in a way that destroyed significant architecture or open space.
The historic six-acre Greylock estate has been abandoned for years, collateral for at least $1.5 million in debts held by a series of banks. The banks have apparently been unwilling to negotiate so far, but we are hopeful that the sheriff’s sale scheduled on Nov.1 will facilitate a successful sale.
The Chestnut Hill Historical Society holds two easements that restrict development on the property to protect the open space surrounding the home and the mansion’s exterior. These easements will remain whether or not the site is sold at sheriff’s sale. We would like to provide some facts about the property that should be helpful in this discussion. The main provisions of the easements on Greylock are:
• The mansion may be used as a single‐family dwelling, converted to up to nine condominium units or for very light commercial use.
• The carriage house may be used for up to two single‐family dwelling units while in use as a garage/storage area for the mansion, or may be converted into three single‐family units.
• Subdivision of the property is restricted; although, the carriage house may be subdivided into one separate lot, with some restrictions.
• Some secondary structures can be built on the site within the “building envelope”
• Some restrictions exist, meant to manage a relatively low intensity of use, on traffic volume, number of employees, and social events
• The mansion’s exterior must be maintained at defined “minimum maintenance standards;” proposals to alter significant architectural features must be reviewed and approved by CHHS.
What is an easement?
The 40 easements managed by CHHS in partnership with the Friends of the Wissahickon aim to protect the Wissahickon Creek watershed and protect the cultural and natural landscape. Easements are agreements between a property owner and a nonprofit or land trust where:
• The property owner has donated development rights and agreed to certain restrictions in perpetuity, and
• The land trust commits to protect the conservation and preservation goals of that agreement. The historical society maintains a robust fund that can and will only be used to defend easements, although we are typically able to work in partnership with owners wishing to make appropriate modifications. Proposals for these modifications are reviewed by the Conservation and Easements Committee run by the historical society in partnership with Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW).
Each easement is unique, guided by professional standards but hammered out individually by owner and land trust (and their lawyers and advisors). As with any charitable contribution to a nonprofit, the value of the donated easement can be taken as a tax deduction if a property owner wishes. Example: if my subdividable property is valued at $1.2 million and an assessor determines that the value of the property is $1 million after I donate a conservation easement that maintains my land as open space, I can take a tax deduction on that $200,000 donated value (and I can spread that over a span of 15 years).
In the case of Greylock, for whatever reason, it seems that a tax deduction was never requested by the property owner. That’s between the owner and his bank account, though, and has no bearing on the work of the historical society.
Why easements here?
As documented by the William Penn Foundation, “stormwater and wastewater pollution from related development makes the Wissahickon one of the most-heavily degraded streams in the region and contributes to considerable flooding and pollution.” The protection of open space is as much about protecting the Wissahickon as it is about preserving beautiful, green viewshed.
The Easement program managed by CHHS in partnership with Friends of the Wissahickon has facilitated the protection of over 130 acres of significant area open space since 1990, all of it in the Wissahickon watershed. Yet FOW’s 2006 “Protect our Watershed” study identified more than 1,900 additional acres that are priorities for watershed conservation – 400 acres in Chestnut Hill alone. The Wissahickon can only be protected by the conservation of both public and private land in the watershed, and the easement program provides a powerful tool to encourage private open space conservation.
Conservation easements, historically been utilized for farmland conservation, are increasingly employed in urban and suburban areas. In using this tool here, the Chestnut Hill Historical Society – the nation’s first accredited urban land trust – has blazed a trail for similar organizations and communities.
The historical society works to balance beneficial development with protection of historic resources and open space. In addition to our open space conservation program, CHHS has worked for the past 49 years as a preservation advocate and maintains a research archive of over 20,000 historical photos and other documents. We welcome you to join us, and to contact us if you have any questions about Greylock or other area treasures.
For more information on the Greylock estate, the easements, and the Nov. 1 sheriff’s sale, visit the historical society’s Greylock Web page at www.chhist.org/greylock-2016. Interested in considering an easement on your property? Visit our easement Web page at www.chhist.org/easements.