Protecting the District of Columbia’s tree canopy — and its City of Trees reputation — is “always a moving target,” said Mark Buscaino, executive director of the nonprofit that leads the local effort. So, in addition to feverishly planting and defending urban trees, Casey Trees is taking a new tack: conserving a handful of small lots where more of them could take root in the future.
This fall, the nonprofit partnered with the District government to place four small, undeveloped properties the city owns into conservation easements. The voluntary agreements permanently limit how the properties can be used, in this case protecting them as green, “plant-able” spaces. While the amount of land included in the agreements is relatively small — measured in square feet rather than acres — the concept is notable.
“It’s unique to have a municipal government putting its own lands under private easement,” said Charles Flickinger, a Casey Trees board member and attorney who documented the easements. “In this case, the city doesn’t get a charitable deduction. It’s just additional protection for the land.”
Alan Rowsome, executive director of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, is used to helping conservation easements come to fruition in rural, suburban and, occasionally, urban landscapes. In cities, he said, “measuring in square feet might not seem like it’s worth doing, but it can make a huge difference.”
Seeing Casey Trees jump into easement work in the District — where larger land trusts don’t often work and the nonprofit is already a steward of natural landscapes — seemed to Rowsome like a logical and innovative solution.
Owned by the District’s Department of Housing and Community Development, the four properties were among 90 that the agency was in the process of auctioning off or re-imagining as part of its “Vacant to Vibrant” initiative. Polly Donaldson, the department’s director, said the program’s main goal is to take underused or derelict spaces the city had acquired over the years and “return them to productive use.”
Most of the properties were sold to developers to create affordable and workforce housing units. But, for a few parcels that were too small, too hilly or too close to industrial areas, for example, the agency started looking for the next best thing. While the city’s housing department doesn’t necessarily have a goal to preserve a certain amount of natural areas in the nation’s capital, the District’s mayor and environmental agencies do.
The housing department saw in these small parcels the opportunity to contribute to those goals while making the land more functional for both residents and the environment.
“A key part of our mission is revitalization,” Donaldson said. “The trees, neighborhood by neighborhood, are great investments for the city, and we see that as a way to preserve green space in an urban environment.”
Casey Trees didn’t need much persuading to help the city place easements on the properties, even though that conservation strategy is rarely used in an urban context. The nonprofit had already completed its first urban easement on a park in the District’s Bloomingdale neighborhood a few years earlier — and had been looking for more projects like it ever since.
“It became clear that one of the best things we could do to preserve tree canopy is to preserve soil,” Buscaino said.
The opportunity in Bloomingdale came in 2015, when a community group that owns a one-acre strip of green space in the now-
popular DC neighborhood reached out for help to preserve it. The block-long “oasis”— Crispus Attucks Park — is hidden from the street by rowhouses backing up to it on every side. When renovated, the homes sell for around $1 million.
But the out-of-sight ribbon of land wasn’t always a draw for the community. Through most of the 1900s, the site was home to a telephone switching station and cable yard. When the company closed in the late 1960s, it left behind an abandoned building on an acre of asphalt and cement that would remain for decades, according to records on the park’s website.
In the late 1970s, residents got the company to donate the building as a community center and formed a nonprofit that became the Crispus Attucks Development Corp., whose volunteer board manages the space to this day. In the intervening years, the community center lost its public funding for programming and the empty space became a magnet for abandoned vehicles, the homeless, drug dealing and illegal dumping until a police crackdown in the late 1990s.
Still, residents began to see potential in the underused space. Will Gomaa, past president of the CADC, said that’s when they began ripping up small patches of asphalt and planting gardens around the edges.
“There were still residents that cared a lot about it,” Gomaa said of the park’s sordid years. “Even during those difficult times, people were planting flowers behind their houses, or a tree or two.”
Those piecemeal efforts turned into a broader vision for the space where the former building had burned down and a patchwork of asphalt remained. After battling through back taxes to reclaim ownership of the site, the CADC board began in the early 2000s to create a park.
They worked with the city to remove what was left of the burned-out building and brought the newly minted nonprofit, Casey Trees, in to landscape the space where clusters of trees would continue to be planted and fill in over the next 15 years. Now, Saturday morning soccer practices bring dozens of kids to the park’s grassy sections, where residents walk their dogs on weekday mornings and readers find shade along the edges on slow Sunday afternoons.
Gomaa, who moved to the neighborhood in 2009, said the community finally had its green oasis and wanted to keep it that way. But the acre of land — in the midst of a city with rising populations and housing prices — was worth far more than their nonprofit’s annual income from yard sales and events.
“We started thinking about ways we could make sure this land would stay a park, no matter what happened in the future,” Gomaa said.
Most of the organizations that the board reached out to about conservation easements specialized in preserving historic buildings. They didn’t have a rubric for protecting a park. Though the District has more green and treed spaces than most cities of its size, thanks in part to its share of national parks, few of those spaces are protected through private easements — a conservation tool more commonly used on large tracts of private land in rural areas.
Still, an easement seemed to be the best way for the board, which would continue to own Crispus Attucks Park, to prevent the space from being developed into another row of townhomes in the future. Even if the nonprofit went under and the park was sold to a new owner, the easement would keep it green in perpetuity.
Buscaino said Casey Trees had been considering taking on a land trust role to participate in easements at about the time the opportunity to do so at Crispus Attucks came up.
“For us at Casey Trees, this is really a win-win in terms of our mission for the tree canopy,” Buscaino said of the easements, both at Crispus Attacks and on the District-owned lots. “Even if a tree gets cut down, if there’s soil [that’s protected], it’s going to turn into a tree sooner or later.”
Flickinger, who helped craft the language for the easements, said he mimicked other land trusts’ legal language while tweaking it for an urban environment. He was careful to avoid language that would merely require the land to be kept “pervious,” so that water could filter through it, because paving stones and tennis courts — regardless of how well they filter water — do not make good soil for planting trees.
For the four easements within the District, the language allows for things like park benches and small storage solutions while ensuring that about 95 percent of the land remains “plant-able.”
Each of these properties protected through conservation easements in September is unique, ranging from a tiny, hilly lot of trees between houses in DC’s Buena Vista neighborhood to a half-acre mini-forest nestled next to an industrial corridor and railroad tracks in Lamond Riggs, a few miles north of Casey Trees’ headquarters.
Three of the four properties are located squarely in the watershed of the Anacostia River, in east and southeast portions of the city, and one is on its edge in the District’s northern corner. Two properties are triangle-shaped grassy lots at the end of residential streets, one of which has no trees — yet.
As the District nears 700,000 residents, with a growth rate of nearly 1.5 percent per year, both the city and the nonprofit said they’d be interested in finding more spaces that fit the bill for easements. Casey Trees’ Buscaino said in December that he was in the process of hiring someone to pursue easements full-time, to “give it the old college try.”
“I would like to see it be more than an episodic thing where somebody knocks on our door and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got some land,’” Buscaino said. “They’re not making any more land in this 60-square-mile triangle that is the city. Wherever we can preserve trees, we will.”