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Agency seeks funds for land protection

By Alex Bridges

A Shenandoah County agency wants money next year to help protect farmland and open space from development.

The Conservation Easement Authority has asked the Board of Supervisors to consider allocating $120,000 in the fiscal 2015 budget to the program. The money provides matching local funds needed to put land into permanent, protective easements. Funds would come from taxes collected on property taken out of a special taxation program.

Authority board Chairwoman Kelly Watkinson relayed to supervisors on Thursday the importance of funding the program and the need for local money to help secure easements.

"But without having county funds set aside, the CEA is really limited in carrying out the mission of the program and of the authority itself," Watkinson said. "We've had several landowners who are interested in pursuing purchase easements but since we don't have any funding we can't really go any further with those projects."

District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey questioned the use of local tax money for the program.

"But they can voluntarily put their land in conservation easements without any tax dollars being paid for that," Bailey said.

Watkinson concurred but noted the county set up the program to reach out to landowners who lack the financial ability to give up the development rights and the value of the property. Bailey asked if the tax breaks available to land owners offsets the loss of the development value. Watkinson said it's not a wash and that federal tax breaks available to landowners also are contingent on a person's income. State tax credits are limited to a maximum of 40 percent of the appraised value of the easement.

Bailey noted that residential development remains low and landowners can choose to put their property in protective easement without the county spending taxes to purchase development rights.

District 2 Supervisor Steven Baker serves as a representative on the authority board. Baker said he supports the authority's request since it's for rollback taxes that would not cost the county any extra money

Watkinson said this marked the first time the authority has come to supervisors with a budget request since the county began the program.

"The CEA is pretty proud of our track record for being able to match local funds," Watkinson said.

But Watkinson warned that the county could lose opportunities to secure federal and state money for easements if it did not allocate local dollars. Virginia has had to return approximately $2.8 million to the federal farmland protection program because local governments did not provide a match, Watkinson said.

Property under land-use taxation is taxed at a lower rate as an incentive to owners to keep their land in agricultural use. Property owners must keep the land in the specified use or face paying "roll-back" taxes for years in which they received the break.

The county collected $344,531 in rollback taxes during those years and the county allocated $100,000 in 2011 to help the authority use the money as leverage to secure easements, according to Watkinson's letter to the county. The authority board based its request on the available matching funds from state and federal sources and the remaining $244,000 in rollback taxes collected from 2005 to 2012. The $120,000 is approximately half of the remaining taxes collected.

Watkinson said the authority board believes the money is suited for the easement program because the taxes come about when someone takes property out of land use.

Supervisors acted on a recommendation in the Comprehensive Plan by allocating $100,000 from roll back taxes to the easement program in 2011. The authority used that money as leverage by matching it with more than $900,000 in grants and the value of land a property owner gives up when donated as an easement. Watkinson said the match for local funds exceeded the authority standard of 8 to 1.

"We feel confident that we could replicate that and even do better," Watkinson said.

Supervisors last year voted to accept the first two easements for the county that cover more than 500 acres. Rollback taxes helped secure the easements, Watkinson said.

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

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