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Posted June 8, 2012 | comments Leave a comment

Mt. Jackson farmland preservation grows

Agricultural and Forestal District largest protected area in Shenandoah County

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

Shenandoah County's largest area of protected farm and forestland continues growing.

The Mt. Jackson Agricultural and Forestal District now spans 11,257.89 acres, according to Brandon Davis, planning and zoning administrator for the county. The district -- one of 21 in the county -- comes up again for its 10-year renewal, Davis explained Friday.

The Planning Commission after a public hearing on Thursday voted unanimously to recommend the Board of Supervisors renew the district for another 10 years. The matter goes to the supervisors for a public hearing at their meeting June 26.

Davis during his presentation to the commission touted the district and the growing involvement by landowners to protect the property from development. The county has added more than 3,000 acres to the Mt. Jackson district in the past year, according to Davis. Some property owners did opt to take their land out of the district. But the district has grown since its initial inception in 1992.

The Mt. Jackson district remains the county's largest such area and comprises approximately 27 percent of the total acreage of the 21 districts, according to Davis. Districts can cover at least 200 acres in a core area, Davis explained. By comparison, the Jerome Agricultural and Forestal District, which comes up for renewal next year, covers 388 acres.

Properties included in the Mt. Jackson district range from as little as one acre to more than 760 acres. Nearly 90 property owners have placed parcels in the district.

The county first began creating the agricultural and forestal districts in the 1980s and each area comes up for renewal every 10 years, Davis explained.

"The purpose of [the districts] ... is to make that commitment to keep your land in agriculture," Davis said. "There really seems to have been a cultural commitment to these districts and ... Shenandoah County is highly successful in these districts and it's due in most part, I would say, to the culture of the farming community in the county."

A district must first include a core area no smaller than 200 acres. Owners of property at least a mile from the core may join the district, according to Davis

A landowner who puts property into an agricultural and forestal district does so with the intention of preserving the land for farm or agricultural use. The ordinance set forth in the county code states the owners of land in a district would first need prior approval from the Board of Supervisors if they wish to develop the property for a more intensive use other than agriculture. The landowners in the district establish a committee which then registers with the county's Office of Planning and Code Enforcement. The committee help track changes in ownership of the properties in the district.

The option to put land into a district remains free and voluntary, according to Davis.

On the administrative side the process is somewhat convoluted, he said.

"We try to make it as easy as possible on the landowners wishing to participate," Davis.

Property owners in Shenandoah County can opt to put their land into any of the districts at any time. But most owners seeking to put their land in the districts do so around the renewal period. The county sends information by mail to owners with property in the district advising them about the renewal option.

Owners also may ask the county to remove their land from a district when its renewal time comes, Davis explained. The county also allows owners who have property in a district to take out their land if they experience a medical hardship, according to Davis. The ordinance states that any landowner who chooses to take property out of the district may do so by filing a written notice to the Board of Supervisors.

The board, after receiving recommendations from the landowners group and the districts advisory committee, sets the request for a public hearing.

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