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Posted May 15, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Land protection plan draws fire

Resident questions spending county funds to help protect farm

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK - A proposal to use local money to protect a Shenandoah County farm drew fire Tuesday from a resident who claimed the land doesn't need more protection.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday saw for a second time a family's request to put 313 acres of the Pleasantdale Farm into conservation easement. The Hawkins family has proposed to create two easements on the property that would protect the land from future residential or commercial development.

But Woodstock area resident Richard Walker voiced concern about the plan to spend county money to help further protect the farm. Walker spoke first about the property tax bills he pays on his house and 45 acres outside town. He said his bills are approximately 11 times what he paid 40 years ago; the costs have doubled every 10 years, he said, or 7.25 percent each year.

"While I read that as a county we want to stay in a rural atmosphere, what you just considered previously, with this Pleasantdale thing, is paying for something that doesn't exist," Walker said. "That property cannot be developed as a residential development under our existing zoning laws. The property is already restricted as part of an [agricultural] and forestall district. And if they want to place a conservation easement on it and avail themselves of the income tax donations and credits, that would be great."

Walker called the use of $100,000 of local money and $600,000 in federal and state sources "a complete waste of those taxpayer funds."

Last month, supervisors heard a presentation about the Pleasantdale Farm proposal and and members of the board and the Conservation Easement Authority took a tour of the farm. At Tuesday's meeting, supervisors asked about the land value if placed in a conservation easement, how much the owner could receive if he or she sold the property, among other questions.

Some supervisors pointed out the conundrum - how to draw more businesses and promote agriculture at the same time.

County Planner Patrick Felling, after giving the presentation, told the board that anyone interested in buying the land would need to consider that the property has an easement restricting development and encourages agricultural use. The buyer would go in knowing he or she could not build more houses than the two allowed on the easements or develop the land for a strip mall.

Easements cause the fair-market value to drop, Felling explained.

"We have no control over what the fair-market value is going to be but we do know that it will not have the value that a residential neighborhood might have," Felling said. "Typicall, farms that have agricultural easements on them would probably have a lower price on them so farmers coming in to do business could purchase that land at agricultural rates, not at subdivision rates."

Felling explained the property owner has offered to donate the value of the land toward the cost to create the easements. In order to secure more than $600,000 in state and federal funds, the county would need to spend $100,000 of the money the board set aside for conservation easements. The local money comes from rollback tax revenue collected through land use taxation.

The landowner donates part of the value of the property toward the creation of the easement, Felling explained. In essence, the owner sees a reduction in the fair-market value of the property. The owner does not receive compensation. Rather, the Virginia Department of Taxation and the Internal Revenue Service see the reduction as a charitable contribution that can result in tax benefits for the owner.

Vice Chairman Dennis Morris reminded the board the county's Comprehensive Plan calls for the promotion and encouragement of agricultural land. Supervisor David Ferguson said the plan remains a "living, breathing document" that could change. But a conservation easement stays with the land in perpetuity, Ferguson said.

Ferguson said he agrees that the county should work to protect agriculture through easements.

"But I think people should understand why we would do something like this, that we're not going to build out Shenandoah County," Ferguson said.

The supervisor noted the need for balance and said the board wouldn't put all of Shenandoah County into protective easement. Referring to an earlier comment from the chairman, Ferguson noted that the board may want businesses such as Martin's to build in the county.

"But what you want Shenandoah County to look like may not support a Martin's," Ferguson said.

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

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