Posted August 29, 2009 | comments Leave a comment

Keeping counties rural

By Rosemary H. Wallinger

Shenandoah County's vision calls for maintaining our rural character and agricultural economy. An ongoing effort is under way to accomplish this vision. Shenandoah Forum is pleased that one of the many options on the table is a Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) program.

PDR programs are market-based ways for landowners to derive a financial return from their land without selling it for development. The owner "sells" the development rights of the land and a conservation easement that extinguishes those rights in perpetuity is placed on the property. The landowner retains the right to keep the land in its traditional use -- usually farming or forestry. The arrangement is a win-win for everyone.

At a county meeting last week to discuss this and other options, funding for a county-based PDR program was identified as a major challenge ("Funding is the crux for ag programs," Northern Virginia Daily, Aug. 17 issue). Participants expressed concerns about how the county will finance this.

But the county does not need to bear the full cost of the PDR program. On the contrary, state, federal and private funds are available to supplement local funds, but they are often only available if there is some local money already in place.

Clarke County's program, with more than 18,500 acres in easement, received a small local investment but substantial state and federal matching funds.

Frederick County recently considered an option for establishing a $520,000 PDR program based on a county investment of only $65,000.

Other funding options could include:

• Adding a line on the county tax assessment form to accept voluntary donations.

• Initiating a campaign with local businesses to accept donations supporting local land conservation.

• Accepting PDR funding as a proffer associated with development.

• Designating a portion of the land use rollback tax.

Currently Shenandoah County has almost 5,000 acres of land in easement -- about 1.5 percent of the county -- before the creation of a county PDR program. A modest local investment would go far to increase this figure.

It is well documented that land conservation saves taxpayers in the long run. For each dollar generated in taxes from farmland, a county pays only 37 cents in services (compared with $1.19 for residential subdivisions).

Residential development in rural areas increases a county's cost of providing essential services such as schools, roads and emergency services. Often the cost to conserve property now is cheaper than the long-run cost to develop it.

Funding a PDR program may seem daunting at the moment. But getting a program started doesn't require much and future generations of leaders and county residents will benefit from the reduced strain on county taxpayers that will come from a PDR program in the long run.

By giving farmers a way to sell development rights and keep their land, the county can make real progress toward achieving its vision of remaining rural and agricultural.

Wallinger, a Mt. Jackson resident, is chairman of the Shenandoah Forum.

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