Board seeks state OK of conservation program

FRONT ROYAL – Warren County leaders showed support Tuesday for a land-conservation program but stopped short of funding it.

The Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to approve a request by county staff to seek state certification of the local purchase of development rights program. The county would apply to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for certification. The county needs certification of its program to receive state money.

Supervisors adopted a local conservation easement program in August 2009 and the code section allows for the purchase of development rights. But the county did not establish a funding mechanism at the time.

However, most supervisors did not support the use of rollback taxes to fund the program. Vice Chairwoman Linda Glavis’ motion to apply for certification and the funding option failed for lack of a second.

“I like the idea of the rollback taxes being used,” Glavis said.

Supervisors unanimously supported Glavis’ motion to apply for certification without the funding option.

Supervisor Tony Carter said he would support revisiting the funding option later but the county faces some major budgetary needs. Supervisor Daniel Murray Jr. concurred with Carter.

“My main concern is the funding side because we have a dark hole we’re looking into right now,” Murray said. “We really don’t know at the moment where our expenses are going to be and I think we need to be conservative enough to hold those funds and, yet, to step out and get this program started.”

County Administrator Doug Stanley advised that the board could table the matter for further discussion but the Oct. 30 deadline would pass.

Property owners can put parcels they wish to keep as open space or in agriculture into land-use taxation. The designation reduces the assessment of the property and, thus, the amount of tax an owner pays for the land. If the use of the property changes, the owner must pay the taxes he or she would have owed if not given the special assessment for the previous five years.

Some localities use rollback taxes to fund such programs. In the last 10 years, the county has collected $25,000-$30,000 in rollback taxes each year. The funds go into the county’s savings or fund balance. The county could put the money into the special projects budget to use for the program. The county also could apply for grants.

Fred Andreae spoke to the board about the Scenic 340 Project at a Sept. 1 work session and the group’s efforts to help with the county’s purchase of development rights program. The county has not funded the program. Andreae advised supervisors about state money coupled with local matches that could fund the program. Scenic 340 also offered to donate $5,000 as seed money.

Scenic 340 Project was founded in 1999 to preserve and protect the natural and cultural heritage of the area and in response to a Virginia Department of Transportation study of a proposal to widen U.S. 340 to four lanes to Page County. The project called for the removal of almost 60 buildings along the route, Andreae explained to the board in September. A bridge embankment would have extended 20 feet into the river.

Shenandoah County leaders recently tackled the idea of using rollback taxes to help fund its conservation easement and purchase of development rights programs. Supervisors ultimately approved a proposal to allow the Conservation Easement Authority to use the taxes as it tries to help property owners protect their land. Some members of the board opposed the idea, saying instead that the taxes should go back to the taxpayers but not offering specifics on how that would happen. Opponents also argue that property owners have other options that do not require tax dollars.

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