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Posted January 7, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Shenandoah County could protect century farm

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK -- The Vance brothers could see their working Shenandoah County farm protected from development.

The Board of Supervisors must first sign off on the request to put the farm into a conservation easement. Supervisors could decide later this month whether to accept the farm as an easement that would ensure no development can occur on the property.

Gary and Larry Vance own 179 acres south of Strasburg along the Shenandoah River. The property includes a 6-acre island in the river. The "century farm" has been in operation for at least 100 years. The property at 75 Island Ford Lane also is known as the Island Ford Farm.

The Conservation Easement Authority at its meeting Wednesday voted to accept the easement. The easement scored high under the criteria set by ordinance, according to County Planner Patrick Felling, who reported on the offering to the Board of Supervisors at its work session Thursday. The easement also falls in line with the comprehensive plan that calls for a protective easement program, Felling said.

"It's preserving farming," Felling said. "It also protects the forest land as well and the water quality."

But as Felling explained, the Board of Supervisors must agree to co-hold the easement in order for the effort to qualify for a state grant. The federal funding source expires this March, Felling advised.

"So, should the county not participate it is highly unlikely that this easement would go through," Felling warned.

Efforts to purchase the easement began in June 2011 when the authority signed a letter of intent supporting the easement in principal.

"It's a learning experience for a lot of us and we asked a lot of hard questions, a lot of good questions," said board Vice Chairman Dennis Morris, who represents the supervisors on the authority. "I think everybody on the committee felt very comfortable with it, had their questions answered, and feel like this is an ideal opportunity for us to step up as a county."

Morris and the authority toured the property recently. Felling encouraged supervisors to take a tour of the property sometime before the board takes action on the easement at its Feb. 12 meeting.

Supervisor David Ferguson told the board he knows the property well.

"As a young child in Strasburg I used to make hay at the Vance's, I think it was $5 a day ... and the best part of that was eating dinner," Ferguson recalled.

The Vance property is appraised at $1,165,000 without improvements. The easement value is calculated at $493,000, according to Felling. The landowner is donating half of that amount.

The funding for the Vance Farm easement consists of the value of the donation at $245,500; a grant of $82,500 through the state Virginia Land Conservation Foundation; and $165,000 available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm and Ranchland Protection Program. The total doesn't include associated expenses such as appraisals and surveys, picked up by The Potomac Conservancy,which submitted the grant proposal for state funding through the Department of Conservation and Recreation, according to Felling.

While the county would leverage the price at 100 percent, no local money would be spent for the easement.

"You will note that there are no county funds being put forward for the purchase of this easement," Felling told the board. "However the state funds requires the county's participation. If the county should choose not to participate the state monies could not be used on this easement."

County participation would call for the Board of Supervisors to serve as co-holder of the easement with the authority, Felling explained. Co-holding the easement requires the county to serve in a stewardship capacity and protect the restrictions placed on the easement. Should the easement require no further subdivision or building occur on the property, the county and the Potomac Conservancy would have the responsibility to make sure that did not happen, according to Felling.

Such an easement would be recorded as a deed in the Shenandoah County Circuit Court. The easement does not stop with the sale or transfer of the property, Felling explained.

The authority scored the property using criteria set forth in the county ordinance. The property is eligible for protection because the working family farm contains 90 acres of prime farmland in the agricultural and forestall district; is designated as a Virginia Century Farm; and has a conservation plan through the Natural Conservation Resources Service specifically on its crops, livestock and best management practices for nutrients.

The property also meets the criteria for natural resources protection. The land includes more than a mile of riverfront property not including the island. Livestock will be kept from the land along the waterway. Trees and grassland by the river will be fenced off from livestock to create a buffer. Approximately 40 acres, or 22 percent of the land, is in the 100-year flood plain.

The property also qualifies for protection as open space because it lies adjacent to the historic Civil War battlefields located across the river. The landowners agree to give up the rights to create 16 subdivisions on the property, according to Felling. The land also fronts more than 9,000 feet of roads that increases the potential for development of the property, Felling explained.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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