Northern Virginia Daily readers recently have seen articles and letters to the editor about conservation easements being considered in Shenandoah County. As a member of the committee tasked with acquiring conservation easements, I would like to provide some background on why the effort was begun and what we hope to accomplish.
A key aspect of the community's vision for the county -- confirmed during public forums in 2008 -- is for Shenandoah to remain a "primarily rural county" that provides a balance of jobs, growth, and agricultural and resource protection. Residents asked the government to use land conservation as one tool to preserve the rural character of our home. The supervisors complied, creating the Conservation Easement Authority, whose purpose is to acquire and promote conservation easements.
What is a conservation easement? It is a voluntary restriction, placed by a landowner, on the future use of the land. In Shenandoah, our focus is on acquiring easements that preserve farms and other open space away from the towns.
Easements are written to ensure the land stays open and available for farming forever. So a farmer who wants his land to stay in farming can craft an easement that rides with property. These restrictions (like no subdividing into house lots) remove some of the flexibility for land use, and typically reduce the property's fair market value. A landowner who in whole or in part "donates" an easement can receive significant tax benefits from the state and the IRS based on that loss in fair market value. Sometimes, funding can be found to help purchase easements. This allows us to further compensate landowners for the loss in value.
In February, the Conservation Easement Authority and the supervisors voted to accept our first easement on a farm along the North Fork. A second proposed farm easement went before supervisors on Tuesday, signaling the continued advancement of this program. We are looking for more rural area landowners who want to keep their land undeveloped. Anyone interested in learning more can contact the county planning office.
Kelly Watkinson, chair, Conservation Easement Authority