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Conservation agency to put request for funds on hold

By Alex Bridges

Shenandoah County's land protection agency still wants to find a regular source of local money to fund its efforts.

But the Conservation Easement Authority plans to wait until the Virginia General Assembly passes a state budget before asking the Board of Supervisors for a source seen as a way to help protect land in the county.

The authority board continued its discussion Wednesday into whether the county should earmark roll-back taxes to help the agency leverage the purchase of development rights in the pursuit of conservation easements. Property owners pay roll-back taxes to the county on land they pull out of agricultural use. The authority has been talking about asking the Board of Supervisors to create a policy by which this revenue source could go to these purposes. The board turned down the authority's request earlier this spring to let the agency use roll-back tax revenue to leverage a proposed easement purchase.

Patrick Felling, planner with the county's Office of Community Development, said Wednesday the budget impasse put a hold on the authority's pursuit.

"Right now the county really needs to figure out what its own budget is based on, what's happening in the state, and that is a larger issue the county needs to wrestle with," Felling said. "Once that's been ironed out then the easement authority will reconsider if and when to go to the board with this proposal."

Authority board Chairwoman Kelly Watkinson echoed Felling's comments.

"We figured we might as well wait 'til the dust settles on that and then they'll be able to make a more informed decision," Watkinson said. "But we fully plan at this point on continuing that proposal, but just later once everybody has a better idea of what the budget situation's going to look like."

The county agency still needs to find a consistent funding source to better perform its work to protect land in the county, Watkinson said. The authority also heard more information from Felling about how other jurisdictions with successful conservation programs fund these same efforts. Felling informed the authority that Carroll County, Maryland, recently earmarked $25 million over six years to fund its successful purchase development rights program. This approach seems out of range for Shenandoah County, Watkinson noted.

"We can dream but I think at this point that is much more than I think Shenandoah County would obviously be able to do," Watkinson said. "But I think the important thing about Carroll County isn't necessarily the number that they invest but kind of looking at some of the mechanisms that they use, to get ideas about what might be applicable in our situation."

Felling plans to continue to research the matter and bring more information back to the authority about options available to Virginia counties.

"But I think the important take-away and something that we need to think about for Shenandoah County as well is it's not just one thing," Watkinson said. "It's a combination of mechanisms or funding streams is really what we need in order to create a sustainable program."

Even if supervisors allocated roll-back taxes specifically to the Conservation Easement Authority, the source would not necessarily give the agency all the money it would need to perform its work. This source also fluctuates year to year depending on whether property owners take their land out of agricultural use. Watkinson called the taxes one piece of the puzzle but said the county would need to look for more sources.

"It's not enough to really make a meaningful investment in land preservation in the county," Watkinson said. "We need more than one funding stream."

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

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