Bay Journal

New policies contribute to VA’s surge in land conservation easements

State and organizations working to make programs more viable for farmers

  • By Lara Lutz on January 06, 2012
Land with shoreline acreage, like this parcel protected through the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, is especially important for improving water quality in the Chesapeake region. Land trusts typically work with property owners to encourage or require good stewardship practices for such areas, especially the planting or maintaining of forested streamside buffers.  (Virginia Outdoors Foundation) The foundation not only preserves land from development but arranges conservation easements that allow the land to be worked and lived on. This is important for farmers, who might otherwise feel that conservation easements aren't practical for working land. (Virginia Outdoors Foundation)

In 1958, Andrew Packett's parents bought a farm on the Northern Neck of Virginia. The decision defined the rest of their lives, and their son's life, too.

Now a father and grandfather himself, Packett still lives on the 437-acre farm along the Rappahannock River where the grain grows, minnows flash in the water and geese fly overhead.

"It's not just a place," Packet said. "It's who we are."

The family's ties to the land inspired them to protect it. In 2008, Packett worked with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to create a permanent conservation easement for the property.

The land remains a privately owned, active farm. Two homes already exist, and up to four can be added. But the easement, managed by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, prevents subdivision and development. The easement is a legal contract that remains in effect even if the property changes hands.

Packett hopes the property will stay in the family, but he is pleased that any new owners would still be obligated to keep the land intact.

"The concept that 200 or 300 years from now one of my own descendants might be down there hunting or fishing the way I've enjoyed it is beyond words," Packet said. "But even if they sell it, that legacy will be handed down to protect a place of special significance."

Virginia has recently enjoyed a surge of conservation agreements like Packett's in which a private landowner and a land trust create a contract that protects land from development.

According to the 2010 National Land Trust Census, the acreage protected by Virginia land trusts statewide has increased by 77 percent since 2005. The census found that Virginia land trusts rank fifth in the nation and first in the southeast for the total number of acres conserved.

Land trusts of all sizes have seen increased activity in recent years. Thirty-six land trusts operate in Virginia, including accredited groups through the Land Trust Alliance such as the Land Trust of Virginia, Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, Piedmont Environmental Council, Western Virginia Land Trust, and Virginia Eastern Shore Land Trust.

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the largest land trust in the state, manages many of the new easements. Created in 1968 by the state legislature, the foundation operates with a combination of both state and private funds. Its protected acreage has more than doubled since 2005 for a total of more than 620,000 acres-three times the size of Shenandoah National Park.

The foundation directly owns approximately 3,500 acres, including 2,500 acres in the Bull Run Mountains of northern Virginia. Most of the protected properties, though, are scattered across the state. The average size is 250 acres.

Outreach manager Jason McGarvey credits the increase in easements to factors that include effective grass-roots outreach, a popular state tax credit and support for conservation goals from both Democratic and Republican leaders.

The foundation has also been successful at negotiating easements that balance conservation interests with the practical needs of farmers, and the word has spread.

"We're trying to protect land without putting it under a glass bubble, so that it can be lived on, worked on and enjoyed," McGarvey said.

Approximately 500,000 of the foundation's protected acres lie within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, including 2,000 miles of streams and 190,000 acres of priority forestland.

Land conservation is a priority in the Chesapeake region because developed land quickly increases the amount of pollution that washes into the water from hard surfaces like roads, parking lots and rooftops. The loss of forests decreases the ecosystem's natural ability to filter air and water pollution. Fewer trees and less vegetation also raise stream temperatures and compromise habitat for wildlife.

The federal strategy to protect and restore the Bay includes a goal to preserve an additional 2 million acres throughout the watershed - Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, West Virginia and the District of Columbia - by 2025.

Conservation easements protect the Bay not only by limiting development, but by making stewardship a part of the agreement. Some land trusts encourage specific practices and others require them.

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation requires stewardship actions that address the most valuable features of the property, but negotiates with landowners on the details. An easement for open space with high scenic value might focus on the number, size and placement of buildings. An area important for water quality could require more streamside buffers or fencing to keep livestock out of streams. A forestry management plan might be needed for woodlands.

The foundation has been working with the Virginia agricultural community to make sure that such requirements are flexible enough that farmers will still be attracted to the use of easements.

"There has been a real push toward conserving working farms and forests," said Trey Davis, assistant director of government relations for the Virginia Farm Bureau. "They are hearing what the frustrations of farmers have been in the past and they are starting to address them."

Long conversations with farmers and other agricultural representatives resulted in the concept of a farmstead area within the conserved parcel, with a wider range of allowable uses.

"We now have two templates, one for standard easements and one for intensive agriculture properties that need extra flexibility for buildings and such," McGarvey said. "But that's just a starting point. Every property has its own set of needs and resources."

Tax policies in Virginia have also boosted conservation easements, especially among farmers with modest income. A tax credit for conservation easements took effect in 2000, followed by a change in 2002 that made the credits transferable.

"At first, you could either use the tax credits or lose them," McGarvey said. "If you weren't wealthy, you'd probably never use them and you might also need access to your equity."

When the credits became transferable, the number of easements at the Virginia Outdoors Foundation shot up by 30 percent in the first year.

"Now if you can't use the credits yourself, you can sell them to another person who wants to use them. This has been a huge motivator for small farmers, and we've seen a tremendous surge, especially in the Shenandoah Valley," McGarvey said.

Demand has been so high that the foundation now operates eight offices with 40 staff, including a dozen who are part-time or temporary hires.

The program has spread so well by word of mouth and through promotions from local land trusts that most of the staff is charged with supporting the 3,200 easements currently in place, making regular visits to ensure that landowners adhere to the agreements.

McGarvey said this is the true work of a land trust. "It's the iceberg analogy. Most people see the tip, the acres we protect. The obligations we have in perpetuating the easements are what's under the surface."

The foundation has already doubled its number of easements while facing a 25 percent cut in state funding. Because some easements allow limited subdivisions on the properties, the workload could grow even more quickly. The foundation could stop accepting easements today but still accumulate up to 7,000 total easements if the division rights were exercised.

"It's important for the public to be aware of how this is happening," McGarvey said. "We are strong advocates of diversifying the way we achieve our goals - with more easement holders and different mechanisms besides easements. We're proud of what we've accomplished but we don't think that's the sole way to move forward."

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About Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who lives on the South River in Mayo, MD. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Lara Lutz

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