Easement funding gains support

By Alex Bridges

Shenandoah County’s agency that helps protect open space and farmland might get a source of money to meet its goals.

The Board of Supervisors heard a request Thursday from the Conservation Easement Authority that the county give funds received in the future from rollback taxes to the agency so it can continue the purchase-of-development-rights program. Authority Chairwoman Kelly Watkinson presented the request to the board, who voted 4-2 to forward the matter to its next regular meeting.

Agricultural property or open space in the county’s land-use, taxation program is assessed at a lower value, thus allowing the owner to pay less in taxes. Should the use of the land change, the owner must pay the county the taxes on the property back several years if it had not been in the program. These tax dollars from previous years collected by the county are referred to as rollback taxes.

The authority would use the money to help purchase development rights and to offset some of the costs associated with an owner putting land into a conservation easement.

Supervisor Steve Baker, a farmer who also serves on the authority, voiced support for the agency’s request.

“I think we need to start somewhere on it,” Baker said.

Supervisors set up the authority to fulfill the county’s goal of preserving agriculture and open space, as well as to protect natural resources. The authority has spent almost all the money appropriated by the county in an easement purchase. Supervisors denied the authority’s request in the spring during the board’s work on the budget to appropriate rollback taxes collected in previous years.

Watkinson noted that not only does the easement program help preserve farmland, it also helps the county save money. Residential development costs the county and its taxpayers more than open space and farmland, she said.

Other counties and states use the easement program, Baker said. Virginia also promotes the program and state officials have held forums to show residents the benefits to communities, he added. Baker called the program “a strong tool” to help preserve farmland for future generations.

Supervisor Marsha Shruntz questioned Baker on the purchase-of-development rights program’s popularity in Virginia and pointed out that 20 of the state’s 95 counties — about 27 percent — run the program. Baker pointed out that Loudoun County once supported agriculture but has since given way to development, resulting in higher tax rates. Baker also argued that Shenandoah County is one of the four in the valley that generate the highest amount of agricultural revenue in the state.

Supervisor Cindy Bailey said the authority can continue the easement program without money from rollback taxes. Bailey said the county shouldn’t purchase development rights and argued that landowners who put property into easements still receive the benefit through lower taxes.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: We are not in jeopardy of having overdevelopment or any development in this county, and we have the tools, as you say, already in place and it’s not costing the taxpayers money,” Bailey said.

County Planner Patrick Felling said he couldn’t provide an amount for the most recent fiscal year that ended June 30. The Commissioner of the Revenue’s office billed approximately $32,500 in calendar year 2013 for properties taken out of land use. Information provided to the supervisors showed that the commissioner has billed from $11,000 to $37,000 in each of the eight prior years.

Supervisors Chairman David Ferguson said the request would equate to a small investment by the county in the purchase of the development rights program.

Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese said rollback taxes, which the county does not budget each year, comes directly from property owners who take their land out of the land-use program and not from the general taxpayer. Landowners who change the property’s use to get out of farming should pay the rollback taxes, Neese said.

“So are you advocating paying for farmers’ retirement now?,” Bailey asked. “I mean, they got into a business. They knew what they were getting into. It’s like any other business owner.”

Rollback taxes goes into the county’s general fund that Bailey said could be spent on other needs.

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