Panel discusses revenue loss

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County’s Conservation Easement Authority criticized the Board of Supervisors on Wednesday for taking away their funding for land protection.

The authority met to discuss its future a week after the Board of Supervisors voted to rescind a resolution that set up a dedicated funding source for the group’s pursuits.

Several members, including Cynthia Dellinger, Doug French, Dee Hockman and Chairwoman Kelly Watkinson, responded critically to the supervisors’ action, noting that it goes against major tenets of the Comprehensive Plan and also undermines economic development given that agriculture and tourism drive the local economy.

“You cannot preach that you want economic development and then not want to fund $50,000 – you would pay that to hire an economic development director for their annual salary,” Dellinger said. “You would pay that for a study for infrastructure costs.”

County Planner Garrett Morgan led the meeting and offered suggestions on how the authority could move forward after losing its revenue source. Morgan suggested that the authority work to strengthen its other efforts in the meantime until supervisors change their minds on using tax revenue to fund easements. At that point, if it comes, the authority would be ready to resume this part of its duties.

The authority ultimately decided to continue to meet and discuss issues surrounding land conservation and protection. They plan to meet again in August. Members agreed that they likely would not entertain protective measures such as easements that require local money knowing that at least four supervisors wouldn’t support their efforts.

The supervisors’ vote came after two factions of the board could not reach a deal to set the tax rates and to approve the fiscal 2017 budget. Some members used the authority’s funding source – up to $50,000 per year from rollback taxes to aid landowners in the purchase of development rights – as leverage to reach a deal on increasing the personal property tax rate. Landowners pay rollback taxes when they take their land out of a special tax program or the property use fails to meet certain thresholds.

Morgan also suggested that the authority seek people who put property in easements to work with other landowners who might consider taking the same action.

The authority can still accept easements that do not require local funding but the Board of Supervisors must approve that action. Some authority members remained skeptical that some supervisors would even support such easements that wouldn’t cost local dollars.

“I mean, from everything I’ve heard (supervisors) fully support conservation easements,” Watkinson said. “They just don’t want anybody to receive any money for all the value they’re giving up.”

“I just don’t trust them,” French said. “If they could stick a knife in you and turn it, they would.”

Some authority members claim the supervisors’ action last week goes against major tenets of the Comprehensive Plan. The county reviewed the land-use portion of the Comprehensive Plan in 2014.

Morgan said he viewed agriculture and tourism together, noting that the county can’t have one without the other. The county can’t remain rural if it doesn’t take steps to protect its agriculture, Morgan added.

Dellinger went on to say that the supervisors’ vote goes against the state legislators who represent the county and who support programs aimed at protecting agriculture and open space.

“I’m trying to understand the mentality is where I’m getting at with this,” Dellinger said. “When we talk about industry in Shenandoah County and our two major industries and all we hear about is there are no jobs in Shenandoah County, there is no economic development and the one thing we have in place to help drive agriculture and tourism is being pulled.”

Supervisor Marsha Shruntz criticized the authority at the board meeting before voting to take away the revenue source. Shruntz said she attended authority meetings and heard members say they could do fundraising to bring in money. Watkinson said Shruntz attended one authority meeting.

“She wasn’t going to pay for our retirement,” Hockman said. “We’re wealthy farmers.”

At the supervisors meeting before the vote, many people asked the board to not take away the use of the rollback taxes for easement purchases. Authority members noted that the supervisors already planned to vote the way they did before the meeting. Supervisor Steve Baker, serving as the board’s representative on the authority, recalled that he made a similar comment at the meeting that the action would go against the Comprehensive Plan. Baker agreed that board members had made up their minds before the meeting.

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

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