Board approves money for land efforts

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK — Shenandoah County leaders took action Tuesday to help fund land conservation efforts.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-2 to adopt a resolution to authorize the use of “rollback” taxes for the Conservation Easement Authority but capped the amount that would go to purchase development rights.

Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese made the motion to adopt the resolution, adding the caveat that the county would limit the amount of rollback taxes allocated to the program to $50,000 per year. Chairman David Ferguson and Supervisors Steve Baker and Conrad Helsley voted for the motion. Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz voted against the action.

Shruntz read from a statement, calling the voluntary purchase of development rights program “convoluted” that uses tax money to help wealthy landowners.

“I call for the current Shenandoah County Conservation Easement Authority to be dismembered and replaced with conservative, hard-working county taxpayers,” Shruntz read from the statement. “If tax incentives are the driving force behind conservation easements, greed is the driving force of the PDR program.”

Bailey said a vote not in favor of the authority’s request did not mean supervisors were against conservation.

“It’s the use of taxpayer dollars that is fundamentally inappropriate to use for purchasing development rights,” Bailey said. “We have the tools in place to conserve our open space.”

Supervisors must approve land-development requests, Bailey said. Farmers also can receive a tax break under the existing land-use taxation program.

The county collects rollback taxes from property owners when they take their land out of the land-use taxation program designed to promote agriculture operations. The Conservation Easement Authority has requested that the county allocate future rollback taxes to help fund its efforts to purchase development rights.

The majority of the board agreed at an earlier work session to put the item on the meeting agenda under new business that allows people to speak about the issue. Of the 15 people who spoke, 12 expressed support for the original idea of putting any amount of rollback taxes into the program.

Representatives from the Shenandoah Forum and the Shenandoah County Farm Bureau urged the board to support the original request. Vito Gentile, chairman of the Citizens Advisory Board, the body revisiting the county’s Comprehensive Plan, spoke to supervisors about the longstanding goal of conservation. Other supporters said the program needed funding to be more than a passive effort.

Rich Walker owns about 45 acres outside Woodstock not in the easement program. Walker said he supports the idea of conservation easements but not the purchase of development rights program. Walker pointed out a regulation that restricts property owners in certain areas from preserving land.

“If you want to maintain the rural aspects of Shenandoah County give those people the ability to control their own land and to preserve it for their children,” Walker said.

The county removed private landowners’ development rights in 2010, Walker said, adding that he lost six potential lots.

New Market resident Mark Capozella said the tax breaks given to the farmers and landowners require the county to offset the loss by raising taxes on other residents.

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