Number of conservation easements in valley on the rise
By Katie Demeria
OVERALL -- Christine and Fred Andreae are making their land more appealing to quail, hopefully to encourage the birds to return to the area. Due to the conservation easement on their land, the returning wildlife will be protected for years to come.
According to the Shenandoah Valley Conservation Council, the number of easement conservations in the valley nearly doubled in 2013.
Faye Cooper, the conservation council's executive director, said several things caused the increase.
"One, just in general, conservation easements are becoming more recognized by private landowners as a great option for conserving land and conserving the resources people care most about," Cooper said. "And also, for this past year, the tax benefits were very attractive in Virginia."
Virginia has a land preservation tax credit program, allowing residents tax credit of 40 percent of their donated land's value.
The federal government also gave some income tax enhancements supporting conservation easements.
"They particularly benefited working lands, farmlands especially, so those who were farming land and getting a significant portion of their income from farm operations could take a larger federal tax deduction," Cooper said.
It is unclear whether those federal tax enhancements will continue in 2014, Cooper said, as Congress has not acted on them yet.
The tax benefits help in the practical decision to put land under easement, she said.
"The primary reason typically is that people, farmers, and other landowners -- they love their land, and they don't want to see it being intensively developed and taken out of open space uses," she said.
"But not many landowners can just afford to give away value, so to get something in return in the form of these tax benefits is only fair," she continued.
Setting up an easement does not mean farmers cannot continue to work their land, Cooper pointed out. Generally, she said, easements are designed to protect rural uses.
"There has to be a public benefit, and all of us benefit from having productive farmlands; we all benefit from having the scenic value of properties protected," Cooper said.
The Andreaes put their 190 acres in Warren County under easement in 2000. Just last year, they purchased around 200 acres in Page County, and put an easement on it, as well.
The couple purchased the Page County land in order to protect its historic resources -- the land is part of the Milford Battlefield, where a few battles in the American Civil War took place.
Christine Andreae said they were spurred to consider easement for their Warren County land in the first place because the Virginia Department of Transportation was considering widening Route 340 from two to four lanes.
Her husband said, in preventing a superhighway from being built, they ensured instead a wildlife corridor between Shenandoah National Park and George Washington National Forest.
"We were the first people in this area to have an easement done," Andreae said. "Now we have 1,745 acres, creating a cluster of easements that kind of make a protective bridge."
Diane Kearns of Frederick County also set up an easement in 2013 in the southern end of the county with the Potomac Conservancy.
"It's a property used mostly for hunting and pasturing. We just wanted to keep it open," Kearns said. "It has a stream on the land, and the Potomac Conservancy is generally interesting in preserving waterways."
Christine Andreae said easements are useful in protecting resources -- not just natural or historical ones, but spiritual resources as well.
"Having these spaces and being connected with nature helps us keep our bearings," she said.
Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org