Virginia has established itself as a leader in land conservation by being one of only two states nationwide that has transferable state income tax credits as incentives for landowners interested in protecting their land from development. This reflects the sentiments of most citizens as the 2006 Virginia Outdoors Survey revealed that 95 percent of Virginians said it was either "important" or "very important" to protect natural and open space land.
However, development over the last several decades has challenged many localities to not only influence how development occurs, but more importantly-where it occurs. Virginia is losing 27,000 acres of forest land each year and this trend will likely persist as it is predicted that the commonwealth will lose more forest and agricultural land in the next 40 years than it has since the founding of Jamestown.
To address this, Virginia has authorized localities to establish Purchase of Development Rights and Transfer of Development Rights programs. These programs can provide significant planning tools to localities interested in having the most influence over where development occurs while protecting forest and agricultural land and creating a balance between development and conservation in Virginia.
Arguably, influencing how development occurs is far easier than influencing where development occurs, mainly because how development occurs is based on ordinance and regulation. Influencing where development occurs has been limited to a combination of three components: land use zoning, limited public utilities and the comprehensive plan.
Because land is frequently rezoned to allow for greater density development and comprehensive plans are updated every five years, most localities have limited influence over where development occurs. The most decisive factor influencing where development occurs is directly related to that private discussion regarding the sale of the property between a landowner and a developer.
PDR programs in Virginia have been primarily funded at the local level, although some matching funds have been available through the Federal Farmland Protection Program and more recently, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Unlike a donated conservation easement in which the landowner is compensated through federal and state tax benefits, PDR programs pay the landowner for some or all of the value of the conservation easement. In most other regards, PDR easements are similar to voluntary conservation easements. The landowner maintains ownership of the property and all the rights inherent with it other than those development rights restricted by the easement. The result is a conservation easement whereby land is permanently protected from development.
TDR programs offer similar benefits as PDR, but without local funding or an additional tax burden. In concept, TDR programs allow land development rights to be transferred or sold from "sending areas" to "receiving areas." Sending areas are usually forest land and other valuable open space deemed imperative to the community's need to preserve sensitive natural environments. Receiving areas are lands that the community has designated as appropriate for enhanced development. The result is a sending area parcel of land that is protected from future development.
Localities can encourage the use of this program by creating dual density zoning in the sending and receiving areas, and allowing greater density and development rights for land included in the TDR program, with lower density in land not in the program. The added incentive for localities is that this sale of development rights operates predominantly in the private market with no additional tax burden.
For these tools to operate most effectively, localities should have an inventory of their valuable natural land, including forest and agricultural lands.
This can be achieved through a concept called green infrastructure planning. Green infrastructure planning is a process for identifying and inventorying valuable natural land assets. Used in conjunction with PDR and TDR, development can be guided to more appropriate locations.
While it is certainly possible to administer either a PDR or TDR program, achieving their program goals could be more difficult without guidance based on green infrastructure.
We in Virginia well know that development often comes at the expense of land rich in natural resources, and often increases the financial burden on local governments by the creation of inefficient and costly public services and infrastructure.
If local governments are serious about planning for where development occurs and protecting forest and agricultural lands, they will consider these powerful and influential planning tools. With them, localities can alter the pattern of inefficient growth, while creating a balance between development and conservation in Virginia.