RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Ownership of Historic Markers - 9/13/2019
Various individuals and organizations have organized historic marker/signage installations in...
Posted: Friday, September 13, 2019 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

Various individuals and organizations have organized historic marker/signage installations in Buffalo over the years, including the Buffalo History Museum, the Pomeroy Foundation, neighborhood organizations, etc. Sometimes one entity, an individual or nonprofit, organizes the project while another entity, a foundation or private company, underwrites it. And then a third party is involved when it comes to installing the marker, by providing permission to use either private or public land.

My question is: whose property are these markers once they are installed?

Thank you!

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

This question reminds me of a story told by writer/actress Sarah Vowell in her book, Assassination Vacation

When researching in Buffalo for the McKinley chapters, Vowell met a resident with scars caused by a childhood bike crash into a marker related to the McKinley assassination. 

I remember reading this passage and thinking (like any lawyer would): Hmm, who would be liable for that?  And of course, the answer to that liability lies partly in the question: Hmm, who owns this thing in the first place?

Unfortunately, finding the answer is not as easy as crashing your bike into a marker.

The solution starts out simply enough:  property that is “fixed” to land becomes a “fixture,” and title to it runs with the land.[1]  This is why when you buy a new house, the shed, patio, and built-in grill pit (but not the moveable grill) come with it.  And unless something provides otherwise, a historic marker on the property would belong to you, too.

The problem is, there are a lot of “somethings,” that could provide “otherwise.” 

In New York, most historic markers, if controlled by law at all, are controlled by local law (the New York State Museum maintains an excellent summary as to why on their “Historical Markers” page).  And under state law, cities, towns and villages may pass their own rules for designating, funding, and installing markers at historic sites.[2]

Meanwhile, many private organizations exist to support the site-specific preservation of history.  As the member points out, one of the major supporters of this effort is the William G. Pomeroy Foundation (“WGP”), which operated in collaboration with the New York Museum to promote projects to install signs at historic sites.  

As part of that work, WGP does not condition funding on ownership of the marker (quite the contrary)[3].  That is a typical approach.  However, other private funders could insist on some ownership and/or rules for maintenance—conditions that would be controlled by a contract, donor letter, or bequest. 

So, while a good default answer to “Who owns a marker?” is “Generally the landowner,” the only safe answer, before some research, is “It depends.” 

How can a museum, library, or other stakeholder in a local historic marker now what “it depends” on?  There is no one-size-fits-all answer, but here is a process that should help:

Step 1:  Confirm the ownership of the land the marker was installed on (who of course might not be the property’s occupant).

Step 2:  Confirm if any easement or other real property condition controls the area of the land with the marker.

Step 3:  Assess what federal state and local law(s), resolution, or permits (if any), controlled the installation. 

Step 4:  Assess what contractual obligations (grant document, donation solicitation documents, installation permission document, maintenance agreement,[4]  designer/creator document, etc), may relate to the marker.  

Step 5 (optional, but highly recommended):  Take an informal—but thorough—poll regarding who is emotionally connected to the marker, and develop a plan to consider their investment in what comes next.

I know that not all of these steps are easy to do, and that for a third party who was not involved in the installation, Step 4 might be impossible.  But it remains true: to assess the status of an historical marker, you need to know its history.   

As for Step 5…that is more of a “best practice” than a legal consideration.  Over the years, I’ve observed that before undertaking any action that could impact a monument’s physical condition, it is best to know who will write an angry letter if you disturb the patina (or worse, remove it—even if only for a temporary cleaning).  This includes not only owners, but those who feel a connection to and love for the memorial.  When in doubt, it is good to exercise diplomacy!  And who knows, they might chip in on the maintenance fund.

History, property law, and signage are all serious business. 

Thanks for a great question.

CODA

For those considering embarking on a “historic marker” journey, here is form to help make the archivists, librarians, museum directors, history buffs, and lawyers of the future grateful to you. Every project should have a one of these cataloged, and nowadays, perhaps out there in cyberspace.

The [INSERT NAME] Historical Marker Legal Abstract and Dossier

Sponsored by [INSERT NAME OF ORGANIZATION]

This form is for use when planning and generating a final file for the development, installation, and maintenance of an historic marker.  This project might not require all the items below to be completed.  When an item does not apply, enter “N/A” for “not applicable.”

 

Marker name:

Marker text:

[Attach picture of Marker]

Address of property Marker is located on:

Owner of property at time of installation:

Survey of property with Marker location noted: [attach after noting location on copy]

Attached signed copy of agreement with property owner:

          [if easement or other property right granted, attach]

Installation start date:

Installation completion date:

Insert Description of Maintenance Plan or attach copy of plan:

Is there any money held in trust or budgeted for future maintenance?  If so, please describe:

Federal law passed under:

          [Attach copy of law and, if relevant, resolution or permit]

State law passed under:

          [Attach copy of law and, if relevant, resolution or permit]

Local law passed under:

[Attach copy of law and, if relevant, resolution or permit]

Insert name and address of Funder 1 and attach copy of funding letter, grant contract, or bequest document:

Insert name and address of Funder 2 and attach copy of funding letter, grant contract, or bequest document:

Insert name and address of Funder 3 and attach copy of funding letter, grant contract, or bequest document:

Attach copy of any fundraising solicitation:

The Marker’s designer was:

[Attached contract with designer]

If there is a graphic, who owned the copyright?

The Marker’s fabricator was:

[Attached contract with designer]

Did the Organization’s board pass a resolution regarding the Marker?  If so, attach a copy.

Did the Organization enter into a collaboration agreement to organize and effect the Marker?  This would include a co-sponsorship agreement, an agreement to coordinate different aspects of the project, or an effort to coordinate property ownership, permissions, or endorsements of the project. 

If such an agreement was entered into, please attach.

Name of person filling out form:

Complete file with all attachments is located at____________________________.

 

 


[1] See the case Ritchmyer v. Morss, 5 Abb. Pr. (n.s.) 44, 1866 N.Y. Misc., among many, many others.

[2] In Buffalo, this law is § 337-33Local historic markers.

“The Common Council, by majority vote and with the consent of a private property owner who agrees to maintain the same, may cause to be erected or affixed to a structure a local historic marker that provides information regarding a site that it deems to be of local historical interest, after verifying the accuracy of the information contained on said marker with a local historian and by properly designating and appropriating funds for the creation of the same. A local historic marker shall in no way deem the site or structure it describes as a landmark, landmark site or historic district as those terms are defined in this chapter, nor shall it afford the local site or structure any additional legal protections or benefits.” [emphasis added to address maintenance aspects of question]

[3] Since this was an important aspect of the question, I gave the WGP a call.  I was fortunate to reach Christy Fuller, who was very gracious about answering a convoluted phone call from a lawyer at 9:30 on a Monday.  Christy confirmed that WGP does not condition their grants on ownership of the resulting marker. 

[4]  A maintenance plan should really be part of any historic marker installation.  The application guidance from WGP, for instance, mentions this.  But if every marker had a perfect plan, I bet I wouldn’t have gotten this question.

Tags: Laws, Historic Markers, Property

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