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Posted April 4, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Supervisors hear farm protection offer

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK -- Shenandoah County leaders could protect another 315 acres of farmland near town but would need to spend local money to do it.

The Board of Supervisors at its work session Thursday heard a proposal to put the Hawkins family's Pleasantdale Farm west of Woodstock into a permanent protective conservation easement.

If accepted, this would be the first easement that would require the county spend money set aside for conservation purposes.

County Planner Patrick Skelling updated the board on the proposal under review by the Conservation Easement Authority. The proposal calls for the creation of north and south tracts of 127 acres and 188 acres, respectively. The farm, owned by George Hawkins and his family, lies approximately one mile west of town. Creating separate easements from the tracts allows the family to build a home on each parcel, according to Skelling.

Board Vice Chairman Dennis Morris told supervisors the authority met Wednesday and members have discussed the easement proposal with the Hawkins family. Should the authority vote to accept the easement, the matter would go before the board for its approval, Skelling said.

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation would serve as co-holder of the easement, according to Skelling. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service would act as a third-party enforcer of the easement. However, the county also could serve as a co-holder on the easement if they participate, according to Skelling.

The total "donative" value of the land is estimated at $1.1 million, according to Skelling who noted the property has not been appraised. The family would donate a combined value of $350,844 toward the easement or almost 32 percent, Skelling said. The funding formula calls for a match of $100,000 from the state, and $550,844 through the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program.

But the county would need to spend $100,000 to cover the required local match, according to Skelling. That amount would leverage the state match. Together with the landowner's donation the amount would leverage the federal funds, Skelling explained.

"If the county should choose not to participate in this easement and be a co-holder on this easement, basically the deal would fall through," Skelling said.

He noted that the family already plans to donate more than the 25 percent that the federal easement program normally permits. The family asked if it could donate the higher percentage because the county has limited funds to match, Skelling said.

By putting land into easement, the family can claim tax credits on some of the donated value, Skelling said.

In the presentation, Skelling told the board that more than 90 percent of the farm soils are prime or have statewide importance. The property fronts approximately 1½ miles of roads and is visible from Back Road, and Skelling noted the property lies within the battlefield study area.

Morris said family members make their living solely from the farm operations. Morris noted this makes the easement proposal unique for the county. The fact that the farm serves as the family's income source also plays into how the property scores on the county's easement process.

"It's their bread and butter," Morris said. "Most farms have other ways of making revenue, but they are solely bringing their income from this operation and it's a successful operation.

Maurertown resident Rex Ingram asked the board why the county pays for easements. Supervisor David Ferguson explained that the county pays the money to protect land and agriculture. Under the easement process the family gives up the rights to develop 29 building lots on their property, Morris said. Skelling noted that giving up building rights lowers the property value and thus the price of the land, should the family decide to sell the farm in the future.

Supervisor Steven Baker explained the county has money set aside from rollback taxes that the board can use for land conservation.

Skelling told the board that Woodstock Town Manager Larry Bradford advised him the town has no plans to expand into the area of the farm.

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

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