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Shenandoah County supervisors say no to protecting land tract

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

Shenandoah County's first shot at protecting farmland in a joint venture with a preservation group didn't pan out.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday decided instead to save the money for a future a conservation easement project. As Director of Planning and Zoning Brandon Davis explained after the meeting the 44-acre site before the board did not appear in as much danger of development because of the amount of floodplain on the property.

Supervisors heard a motion to spend $3,750 in local money in an initiative to partner with the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation to preserve a 44-acre tract south of Strasburg. The motion failed on a 3-3 vote after some board members questioned whether the county could spend the money, already set aside for land preservation, on other properties, according to Director of Planning and Zoning Brandon Davis.

"I guess the board just felt the more traditional easement somewhere else would be a better opportunity for us," Davis said after the meeting Tuesday.

Supervisors Sharon Baroncelli, Dennis Morris and Steven A. Baker voted in support of the motion. Chairman Conrad A. Helsley and Supervisors Richard "Dick" Neese and David E. Ferguson voted against the motion.

The planning official explained to supervisors the county's strict regulations on floodplains would restrict traditional development potential of the property proposed for easement, Davis explained to supervisors.

Regulations would allow some non-traditional development -- golf courses, trap and skeet ranges, airport landing strips -- on the property. Davis warned the temporary nature of zoning and the property's closeness to Strasburg doesn't guarantee the site's preservation in the future.

Also the Battlefields Foundation informed county officials it had enough money to buy the easement without the local funds, according to Davis.

The active farmland lies east of Battlefield Road, the U.S. 11 intersection and west of the Shenandoah River. A negotiated easement would have allowed public access for a trail to connect the Fisher's Hill Battlefield to the Strasburg Riverwalk and across the county-owned Keister tract to the Cedar Creek Battlefield, according to Davis.

The property purchase price of $82,500 includes the county's negotiated easement portion of $7,500, split evenly between $3,750 in local money and $3,750 in Virginia Farm and Ranchland Protection Grant Funds.

Davis noted the funding ratio is "atypical" because of the grants and private donations given to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation and the Conservation Easement Authority. Davis noted in his presentation the need to preserve the property has value but the priority lies in the county's local contribution of $3,750 to gain public access to the site.

The floodplain's prevalence lowers the per-acre purchase cost of the property to $1,875 -- below the typical easement price of $3,000-$4,500, Davis explained. Property of this kind not in a floodplain would be worth three times the value, according to Davis.

Supervisors in the fall approved allocating $100,000 in local money to support the Conservation Easement Authority's efforts to preserve farmland. The authority had an additional $5,000 in private donations, then received matching funds from the state's Office of Farmland Preservation. The authority volunteers and county staff since then worked to preserve agricultural, environmental and historical land resources.

The authority voted May 29 to approve what would have been the first conservation easement to which the county would be a co-holding party, according to Davis. Staff recommended supervisors approve the conservation easement and the request to spend the money on the effort.

Shenandoah County is one of only a few localities in Virginia that allocated funding to an established Conservation Easement Authority. Shenandoah County competed with those other localities to receive funds awarded by the state.

"We're working towards preserving some other properties and it just seemed to me the floodplain issue was a major issue here and they wanted to spend the money elsewhere," Davis said.

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