- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2004

James Firkser sees it all from the roof deck of his town house in the District’s tony Kalorama neighborhood: Dupont Circle, the monuments on the Mall, the office towers in Arlington.

But Mr. Firkser said the best part of his deck isn’t the view; it’s that Uncle Sam helped pay for it.

Well, sort of.

Mr. Firkser, a real estate agent, took advantage of an unusual part of the federal tax code that gives owners of historic homes an income-tax deduction if they agree not to change their property without a preservation trust’s permission.

Mr. Firkser bought his home — a 100-year-old “Beaux art”-style town house near the Washington Hilton — two years ago. Since then, he has spent about $300,000 improving it, including the cost of building the roof deck, adding a balcony off the master bedroom, remodeling the kitchen and updating the plumbing and electrical systems.

Thanks to the tax break, Mr. Firkser figures he will shave about $50,000 off the cost of the improvements.

“It almost sounds too good to be true when I tell people about it,” he said.

To qualify for the historic-property tax deduction, properties must be located in a historic district or listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.

Next, qualified homeowners must donate a “conservation easement” on the facade of their property to a historic preservation trust. An easement is an agreement that allows a person or a group to make limited use of another person’s or group’s property.

By donating a facade easement, a property owner essentially promises the trust they won’t change the appearance of their building without the group’s permission.

For example, the trust’s officials would have to sign off on any new windows before the homeowner could install them.

Easements don’t just protect single-family homes. Preservations have persuaded developers to save the facades of several landmarks in downtown Washington, including the Mather, an old office building near MCI Center whose historic exterior conceals condominiums and art studios.

“It is a promise in perpetuity that you will not compromise the appearance of your property. It’s an extra layer on top of whatever other historic preservation measures your community already has in place,” said Carol Goldman, president of the L’Enfant Trust, the District’s leading historic preservation group.

The Internal Revenue Service could not provide information on the number of homeowners who have taken advantage of the historic property-tax deduction, but the program appears to be gaining popularity in the District.

The L’Enfant Trust, founded in 1978, holds easements on about 700 buildings in the city, Ms. Goldman said.

About 200 easements were donated to the trust in 2003, up from 115 the previous year, she said. The trust has received about 15 easements so far this year.

Mr. Firkser said he found out about the deduction from his neighbors, who also took advantage of it. He didn’t want to bother with the paperwork himself, so he got help from the people who run the National Architectural Trust, a nonprofit group that promotes historic preservation in the District and other cities.

“The process is kind of complicated,” said Mr. Firkser, who estimates that he spent between $6,000 and $7,000 to donate the easement and have the paperwork completed and processed for him.

The National Architectural Trust is one of many groups that have sprung up in recent years to help promote the tax benefits of preservation, according to Lisa Burcham, the District’s historic preservation officer.

“There are times I question the need for multiple easement-holding organizations when we already have the L’Enfant Trust,” Ms. Burcham said.

Homeowners shouldn’t think of donating a facade as sacrificing control of their home’s appearance, according to Tim Maywalt, an area representative for the National Architectural Trust.

In most cases, the preservation groups only want to ensure a home’s appearance isn’t radically changed, he said. “It’s not the goal of the program to freeze you in place.”

When Mr. Firkser sells property in a historic district, he encourages his clients to consider taking advantage of the tax deduction. One of the best benefits, he said, is the plaque that the L’Enfant Trust provides homeowners who donate a conservation easement.

Mr. Firkser hung his near his door. “It adds a bit of panache,” he said.

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