County leaders to consider use of rollback taxes

By Katie Demeria

On Tuesday, the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors will decide if rollback taxes should go toward the county’s Conservation Easement Authority. The issue has drawn both praise and criticism from county residents.

Land put under conservation easements can only be used for specific purposes, such as agricultural use. The county currently has 500 acres under easements.

County planner Patrick Felling explained that landowners in the county’s land use taxation program defer taxes to the county, so long as their land stays in that program.

“And when you leave the program, you pay up those deferred taxes for the past five years,” he said.

Those returned taxes are the rollback taxes currently being considered. The Conservation Easement Authority is requesting those funds go back to the authority so that it may, in turn, create more land under easements.

It can cost a great deal of money for farmers to put their land under easements, Felling pointed out. Sometimes farmers wish to be compensated for the land’s lost value, which is when the county can help. Other times, he added, farmers simply cannot afford the lawyers fees that go along with the process, which can sometimes cost between $5,000 or $10,000. This, too, is where the county can step in.

The Shenandoah Forum has come out in favor of the request. The chairman of the forum’s board of directors, Seth Coffman, said conservation easements ensure that Shenandoah County remains largely agricultural.

“Agriculture is the backbone of the county’s economy,” he said. “We want to see that preserved.”

But others are not in favor of taxes going toward this specific use.

County Supervisor Cindy Bailey said that while she supports the agricultural community, she believes there are more appropriate ways to spend taxes.

“I do not want to use any tax dollars to fund the purchasing of development rights,” she said. “It feels that is a fundamentally inappropriate use of public funds.”

Overdevelopment, Bailey said, is not a threat in the county as not many businesses are trying to get to the area. Therefore, she argued, taxes are better spent in maintaining schools and the other things the county funds.

Others, however, feel that actively encouraging farmland is the best way to protect the agricultural industry that is already here.

Doug French is a member of the Conservation Easement Authority and has 147 acres under easement.

He pointed out that having more farms in the area keeps prices under control for other farmers, since cooperatives, for example, are more useful in areas with more agriculture.

“The more agricultural land we have here, the better off we all are,” he said. “And I feel like that spills over to everybody else, too.”

He also pointed out that the tax cuts help farmers, as well, since it is difficult for them to predict the markets and their yearly incomes.

Coffman and French both argued that easements make it easier for new farmers to get involved in agriculture, too, such as those that do not have family farms to take over. Land under easements cannot be developed, so buyers do not have to compete with developers, making them more affordable for new farmers.

The public will be able to comment on the issue at the meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the board room at 600 North Main St., Woodstock.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com