County agency regroups after funding denied

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK — An agency that tries to protect Shenandoah County farmland from development may need to do so without local funds.

The Board of Supervisors several weeks ago denied a request by the Conservation Easement Authority for $120,000 that the agency would use as leverage when a property owner sought to put land into permanent protection. The money would come from a pool of money collected from property owners who take parcels out of a special taxation program designed for agriculture and must pay “rollback” taxes. The source would help the authority fund a purchase of development rights program.

The authority board met Wednesday to discuss, among other topics, how it could move forward without the source of leverage funds. The authority has $2,500 after spending funds to help place an easement on the Hawkins family farm, according to county Planner Patrick Felling.

District 1 Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese had said he opposed spending previously collected rollback taxes to buy development rights to protect farmland but could support using these funds as the county collects them in the future.

The county has collected $10,000-$15,000 in rollback taxes annually in recent years, Felling said. However, he said he expects that number to rise when development picks up.

District 2 Supervisor Steve Baker represents his board on the authority and tried to drum up support for the request. Baker dropped the request to $50,000 but still failed to gain support.

“I really felt that rollback taxes of land that was taken out of agriculture should actually be used to protect property in the future,” Baker said.

Baker suggested that the authority and the county come up with a more permanent source of funding for the conservation efforts. They may need to research and see what other areas of the country do to fund land-protection, Baker said. The county faces a dilemma when it has prospective easements but no money to help protect the land, Baker noted. Felling explained that some jurisdictions with easement programs have seen corporations give large donations that can then be used as leverage to obtain funding from other public sources.

Authority board Chairwoman Kelly Watkinson voiced support in looking for other sources but noted the benefits of the rollback taxes.

“I think that definitely we need to keep exploring sort of other designated funding sources,” Watkinson said. “But, at a minimum, it would be great to get rollback taxes because, even though it’s not a lot of money a lot of times it doesn’t take a lot of money to be able to leverage some of these larger funds.”

Easement funds made available from state and federal agencies are getting returned because some counties are not putting up the local match required to receive these sources of money. Felling said more than $500,000 recently went back to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“So next year VDACS will have an abundance of funds for those localities that have matching funding,” Felling said.

Baker said the authority could still come to the Board of Supervisors and request future rollback taxes.

“But it’s such a negative climate surrounding [the issue],” Baker said. “There’s been some support from some organizations that do know the value of this.”

While the authority faced negative reaction by some supervisors, Felling noted that the agency’s efforts have attracted positive press. The authority may need to spread more information to the public about what they do, members said.

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