By Alex Bridges
WOODSTOCK - Shenandoah County leaders took steps Tuesday to preserve farmland.
But the Board of Supervisors stepped back from a 300-acre gift of land over some members' concerns with the strings attached. The board asked county officials for more information on the proposal.
Supervisors at their regular meeting voted 6-0 to accept a conservation easement on a 179-acre farm owned by Gary and Larry Vance near Strasburg. The property, also known as the Island Ford Farm, has remained in agricultural use for more than 100 years. As a conservation easement, the farm will be protected from development in perpetuity. The easement does not allow for further subdivision of the property but does keep the existing home and adjacent structures on the land.
The Conservation Easement Authority, the Potomac Conservancy and the county worked with the owners on the process that started in 2011.
The county does not pay any local funds for the easement. However, the terms of one of the grants needed for the purchase of the easement required the county to participate as a co-holder of the easement. The county's participation leverages nearly $250,000 in state and federal funds, in addition to roughly the same amount of the value of the land donated by the owners.
Vice Chairman Dennis Morris thanked the authority for its work. Supervisor Steven Baker voiced support for the easement and noted interest in the conservation method appears on the rise.
Supervisors also approved a 10-year lease with Guy Gochenour to operate the County Farm. The lease revenue calls for the lessee to pay the county between $5,878 and $7,000 per year during different periods through 2022. The county must install a fence along Teaberry Road, participate in the non-cost sharing portion of grassed, water ways in the field, pay 66 percent of any non-cost sharing portion of the installation of any alternative water system, and 66 percent of a frost-proof water trough.
Efforts to secure a lease with Gochenour began in late 2011. Supervisors asked the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and the County Farm Advisory Committee to discuss uses of the property in cooperation with the County Farm Task Force report. Supervisors in August voted to allow the Parks and Recreation Department to use a portion of the County Farm for its use. The county then advertised for a qualified farmer to continue using another portion of the land for agricultural operations. The county received a proposal in late October. A panel reviewed the proposals and recommended the county enter into the lease with Gochenour.
But supervisors decided to table any action on the gift of land from the estate of Zula Wagner. While Baker and Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli expressed support for a proposal to accept the gift and use the land as a regional park, more members said they had concerns with the donation.
Parks and Recreation Department Director Pam Sheets provided more information to the board based on questions and issues raised in earlier meetings. For instance, the park would not feature ball fields that require lighting. The property has water and electricity. The county department likely would not need to increase staff to maintain the park, Sheets said.
Baroncelli warned that the county might set a bad precedent if the board turned away the gift. She added that the land likely would be sold to a developer and not return to agricultural use if the county did not accept the gift.
Supervisor Dick Neese said he had received calls from more than two dozen residents expressing opposition to the county turning the land into a park. Neese explained that the road into the property is not wide enough for the traffic that might use the park. Supervisor David Ferguson said he has concerns with the cost the county might incur to upgrade the property and maintain the park as required under Wagner's will. Ferguson also questioned whether the sheriff's office would be able to patrol the park for security because of the property's distance from any main roads.
Chairman Conrad Helsley said the board would table the proposal and asked that County Administrator Douglas Walker provide answers to the outstanding questions and issues raised by supervisors.
The board has until April 1 to either accept or turn down the gift.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org