Easement authority turns focus to education outreach

By Katie Demeria

With the prospect of receiving fairly consistent funds in the future, Shenandoah County’s Conservation Easement Authority will start focusing on educational outreach over the next year.

Last month the Board of Supervisors voted to grant the authority rollback taxes, with a yearly limit of $50,000. Those funds will not become available until August 2015, according to County Planner Patrick Felling and the authority’s chairperson, Kelly Watkinson.

At its meeting Wednesday, the authority discussed what can be done until those funds become available, both in terms of spreading education about easements throughout the county and developing other revenue streams.

“The activities we’re focusing on, for now, include increasing the education and outreach component of the authority, looking for ways to really get the idea of conservation easements and the benefits of the county’s program to the various sectors in Shenandoah County,” Watkinson said in an interview.

Authority board members are hoping to use the knowledge of experts in various fields, she added, such as tourism, economic development and agriculture, in order to show the county how easements benefit various areas.

“We’re experts in conservation easements, but as far as being able to convey how this program is going to help tourism in the county or help sustain agriculture, we want to get some experts in those fields in to brainstorm ideas and strategies,” she said.

After those strategies are developed, Watkinson said the authority will use them in order to further education.

“We want to really educate them on what we’re doing and how the goals of the program will benefit them, as well as try to get some more support and champions for the program as we explore additional funding streams,” she said.

“Because, the reality is that the rollback tax commitment is not going to sufficiently fund the program,” Watkinson continued. “It’s a somewhat reliable source of funding, but if we’re going to have an effective program, we need to find some other funding stream.”

Those other funding streams could come from grants or private donations. Felling said there is a state program that supplies grants for easements, but it is highly competitive.

He added that it was encouraging that the county allowed those funds to go to the authority, as it shows support for the program. The last time they received funding was a one-time allocation in 2011.

In 2013, only $32,500 was available in rollback taxes, which, in the context, is not a great deal of money, but could be leveraged and become quite useful, he explained.

Both Felling and Watkinson pointed out that conservation easements help the county in a variety of ways. They said they hope to develop ways in which to spread that message in the near future.

“The county does prioritize agriculture, it is our number one industry,” Felling said. “This is another way the county supports our number one industry. This is a way to strengthen agriculture and support these jobs and the economic output.”

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