County backtracks on land protection

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County reversed its stance this week on land conservation, a major tenet of its Comprehensive Plan.

The Board of Supervisors rescinded a deal struck in 2014 that dedicates up to $50,000 annually from rollback taxes to help the Conservation Easement Authority and landowners cover the cost to put property in permanent protection. How the board’s action affects the authority’s efforts to help landowners protect property from development remains uncertain. Supporters of using the rollback taxes say the money helps offset the cost of pursuing conservation easements. Anti-tax supervisors say the revenue belongs to the taxpayers.

But neither Frederick nor Warren County allocate a source of local revenue for the purchase of development rights even though both localities have a history of supporting conservation. Frederick County established its Conservation Easement Authority years ago and currently co-holds one easement with the Potomac Conservancy purchased with grant funds.

Warren County also holds conservation easements. Its Board of Supervisors once discussed the potential use of rollback taxes as a source of revenue to help conservation efforts but ultimately decided against the idea, County Administrator Douglas Stanley said.

Conservation advocates in Shenandoah County, including farmer and District 2 Supervisor Steve Baker, urged the board Tuesday not to rescind the resolution it passed two years ago setting up the funding source. At that time, then District 3 David Ferguson and District 1 Supervisor John R. “Dick” Neese supported the measure with Baker and District 6 Supervisor Conrad Helsley. Supervisors Cindy Bailey and Marsha Shruntz tried to stop the effort. Shruntz also pushed to disband the authority but did not receive support.

Richard Walker replaced Ferguson on the board in January. Neese withdrew his support for the resolution and joined Bailey, Shruntz and Walker to rescind the action. Helsley pointed out that the $70,000 collected thus far amounted to a small fraction of the county government’s $60 million budget.

Property owners can go through other channels to protect their land without spending tax dollars, Bailey has argued. She also criticized conservationists such as the Shenandoah Forum for not voicing opposition to a rezoning that changed pastureland to industrial use.

Property owners receive a significant tax break when they put parcels in a special program designed to promote land conservation and agriculture. Owners must pay five years of “rollback” taxes when they change the use of the land or, as Walker mentioned Tuesday fail to meet an agricultural quota established under the taxation program. Until establishing the resolution, rollback taxes reverted to the general fund.

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