County planners to renew farming, forest districts

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County stands to lose more agricultural land in special districts this year.

The Planning Commission meets at 7 p.m. Thursday to consider including 597 parcels across 16,792 acres in the Agricultural and Forestal District. The commission first must hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinances that, if adopted, would renew the districts.

Districts set for renewal this year are Coal Mine Hollow, Liberty Furnace, Tumbling Run, Columbia Furnace, Mill Creek, Wakeman’s Grove, Glaize, Morning Star, Woodstock East, Lebanon Church, St. Luke and Woodstock West. The districts were last renewed in 2005. The Agricultural and Forestal District Committee has recommended the elimination of the Tumbling Run and Glaize districts. The loss of the two districts came about because the few landowners there decided to leave, County Planner Garrett Morgan said recently.

Approximately 160 parcels totaling 4,895 acres were removed from those set for renewal, Morgan explained. The county would have seen a greater loss – approximately 8,326 acres or nearly 40 percent – given the poor, initial response by landowners to see if they wanted to renew their parcels, according to Morgan’s information.

A months-long effort to reach out to landowners with property in the district resulted in limiting the loss to 2,458 acres or 12.77 percent. Morgan attributed the loss to the county’s changing demographics. Many property owners already in the district added parcels, Morgan said. In some cases owners didn’t realize they were in the district and then decided to add more parcels.

The withdrawal of the land doesn’t necessarily mean the owners intend to develop their property, Morgan said. Much of the land remains zoned for agricultural use, he added.

Landowners withdrew from the district for a few reasons. Morgan said some of the older landowners believe leaving a district can maximize the value of the estate if and when they or their heirs sell the property. Some expressed concern over the restrictions if the development market returns. Others are considering conservation easements and want to maximize the land value and avoid a potential withdrawal vote by the Board of Supervisors. Some owners feel uncertain about the future operation of the land because of health issues and lack of interest by younger generations, and they want few constraints to allow for flexibility. Others see no benefit of the district because they feel the county would not end its land-use taxation program.

“Admittedly, it’s a bit of a hard sell,” Morgan said of persuading landowners to stay in or join a district. “A lot of people are in it because they want to have basically protection in case land-use taxation goes away.”

The county must tax land in an agricultural and forestal district at a lower rate than other property, Morgan explained. District regulations also include reduced setback requirements for agricultural buildings, Morgan said.

“But the main benefit for people going into it is that they really feel committed to conserving the land and they want to keep farming,” Morgan said. “The economic benefits are not large but it is a great way for farmers and foresters to kind of protect their land a little bit and it’s another insurance policy on top of land-use.”

The renewal process showed an overall reduction in district land but not for purposes of development, Morgan noted. The county saw a positive response to the program through its informational meetings, letters, phone calls and walk-ins. A conservation mentality remains strong among county landowners, Morgan said.

At the beginning of the process, 707 parcels totaling 19,250 acres were included in the ordinances spanning 13 districts. The county mailed renewal notices to all landowners, held public information sessions and followed up with individuals as needed. The Agricultural and Forestal District Committee met on Oct. 15 and voted to send a recommendation of approval for the renewals to the Planning Commission. The process resulted in the recommendation that the commission renew the 597 parcels in the district.

The committee decided in October that the county would remove all landowners who did not respond from the district. The committee asked Morgan to continue efforts to contact landowners. He made follow-up phone calls using online databases and the phone book. The county sent second letters with final deadline and notice of withdrawal to landowners.

“In the past, the county hadn’t reached out to landowners because in the state code, once you’re in a district, you’re in it until you ask to leave,” Morgan said. “I wanted this to make sure that everybody that’s in the district really knows their land is in the district and is committed to it.”

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