Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Saving the Viewsheds

I've gotten so that I look out the top of our windows to look over the unfortunate views that have developed from our house over time.  I imagine that if the Quonset hut (and all the junk behind it) were gone, we might have a great view of the New River.  From upstairs, I can see the  upper half of the mountains on either side, their colorful leaves in fall, the ice in winter, and the slow spread of spring green.  In our back yard, the cute little Victorian house is marred by the swath of power line scarring the mountain behind it.   

Historic preservation is not just about saving buildings. It's also about preserving land and viewsheds. For those unfamiliar with the term, a viewshed is what you see from a particular place. So it might be the familiar views of a historic Main Street or the untamed wilderness along stretches of a meandering river or the field and mountain views from a family homestead. 

Many of us take these views for granted until something changes.  Unfortunately, that something is usually something irreversible.  Tearing down the historic courthouse in downtown's central square.  Widening the highway and razing historic farmhouses or entire neighborhoods.  Placing a campground on the river's edge.  Building a WalMart on a Civil War battlefield or a McMansion on top of a scenic vista.   Developing a huge housing complex across the river from an 18th century plantation.  While oftentimes these changes are the result of greed, certainly nature has a hand in fires, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides, and hurricanes that can also drastically change viewsheds.  Nature can be forgiven though, while human hubris cannot.  

In our area, the New River Land Trust gives landowners who want to protect their property  from becoming the next big development or industrial site on the river the opportunity to donate a conservation easement.  With the conservation easement, the donor donates the rights to develop the land to a state agency or land trust in exchange for generous tax credits and deductions.  The landowner remains on the property and gets the peace of mind that the land won't be developed.  His neighbors and those who passively "use" the land by driving, hiking, or boating by receive the benefit of a preserved viewshed. 

Historic preservationists have a similar tool in preservation easements available through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.  For buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a preservation easement protects the characteristics that made the building eligible for the National Register including architectural features, outbuildings, archaeological sites, historic landscaping, and open space.  The property is protected under the easement, though modernization that doesn't compromise the building is allowed.  The owner receives tax credits and continues to live on the property.  His neighbors and passersby continue to admire the building and its contribution to the historic character of the community.

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