Sometimes we hear deprecatory comments about conservation easements, assertions that they have no real value because D.C. preservation laws do the same thing.
First, they don't do the same thing. Preservation laws sometimes can't accomplish what easements can. The photo on the left shows the 900 block of F Street, NW In the foreground is 918 F Street, the intact 1892 office headquarters of the National Union Fire Insurance Company, protected by conservation easement. Down the block are front walls, the propped-up facades of other equally important historic buildings protected only by D.C.'s strong historic preservation laws.
Second, preservation laws are only as strong as the political will that keeps them in place. Today we sometimes take for granted our city's well-run preservation office and the dedicated people who work there. But tomorrow a new generation will alter the political landscape and preservation laws may yield to the economic and development pressures of the day. Unlike preservation legislation, the private property rights embodied in a conservation easement are largely insulated from such pressures.
Third, redundancy sometimes helps. In our easement enforcement activities we pick up things the city doesn't, and vice versa. Our private preservation efforts support the government's public ones.
And finally, easements promote preservation with less political friction than preservation laws. Easements avoid the social conflict between "property rights" and "preservation." Preservation laws are coercive where easements are voluntary. Preservation laws limit the property rights of owners of historic buildings, whether or not they individually have agreed to such limits. Easements creating such limitations are entirely voluntary; owners lose no property rights they once held unless they voluntarily choose to relinquish them.