Shenandoah County board OKs farm protection

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK – Support greatly outweighed opposition to a family’s hope to protect their Shenandoah County farm for future generations.

The Board of Supervisors followed suit on Tuesday and approved the county’s first conservation easement that involved the use of local money.

More than a half dozen people asked the board to approve a request by the Hawkins family to put 313 acres of their Pleasantdale Farm into a conservation easement. Such an easement would protect the farm outside Woodstock in perpetuity. No public hearing was held on the matter, so the citizens spoke during the public comment period.

County Planner Patrick Felling, in response to questions from Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli, told the board the land faces potential development if not put into a conservation easement. Felling estimated that a developer could put nearly 30 homes on the property.

“You’re either paying for it now or for it later,” Baroncelli said.

Supervisor David E. Ferguson said the county can’t depend on zoning restrictions to make sure the land doesn’t turn over to residential development in the future. Ferguson noted that this easement allows the county to follow through on the board’s intention set forth years ago to begin the program.

Vice Chairman Dennis M. Morris concurred and noted that the property up for the easement surpasses the minimum criteria set by the county under the program.

“We don’t just pick a name out of a hat,” Morris said.

Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese voiced opposition and questioned the idea of spending county money to help purchase development rights on the property.

“I think the conservation easement program is excellent,” Neese said. “I just have a problem paying for it.”

The supporters told the board the easement would help protect agriculture in the county. Likewise, approval of the request would show the board’s endorsement of conservation easements because the initiative comes with local financial support. The county needs to allocate $100,000 of local money already set aside for conservation easements in order for the effort to reach fruition. The $100,000 comes by way of rollback taxes collected by the county from owners of property taken out of the land-use agricultural taxation program.

Rich Walker, who lives a mile from the northern tract of the easement proposal, told the board he supports conservation efforts. But Walker questioned whether the value of putting the Pleasantdale Farm into conservation easement matched the cost not only of local money but the state and federal funds and tax credits. Walker said ultimately the county would leverage $719,000 plus the difference in the tax credits to eliminate 37 acres from potential development.

Walker explained the northern tract could not be developed while the southern section considered for the easement has the potential for development of 18 lots. Walker had sent board members information about the proposed easement.

“You have to look at what you’re getting for what you’re paying,” Walker said.

Also at the meeting, the board held a public hearing on the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Secondary Road Six-Year Capital Improvement Plan. The board heard from several county residents who voiced support for the plan, noting that their roads made the list. Some supervisors questioned the funding plan for the road projects. As Ferguson pointed out, some of the projects may not see any funding or work until 2020.

A VDOT official at the meeting concurred that funding based on projected state revenue does go to some of the projects in later years of the plan. Ed Carter, VDOT official at the Edinburg Residency, noted that the county should begin seeing some funding and road work in fiscal 2014.

Board Chairman Conrad A. Helsley pointed out that the county used to see approximately $3 million per year in the plan compared to a fraction of that amount in the next fiscal period and in following years.

The board agreed to revisit the VDOT plan at its June 11 meeting. Carter said he and VDOT officials would take the comments made by the board and residents in the public hearing into consideration and then come back before supervisors with a proposed resolution of support for the plan.

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