Commentary: Local land protection benefits all

By Kelly Watkinson

Conservation easement programs are an excellent way to help farmers save their farms. However, some landowners are unable to simply donate development rights. That’s why it’s critical that we have a program that makes it possible for land-rich, cash-poor farmers to protect their land. Especially when you consider that what they are doing so clearly benefits all the citizens of Shenandoah County in the long run.

As a citizen of Shenandoah County and the chairwoman of the Conservation Easement Authority, I would like to clarify some details and correct some misstatements about the county’s easement program. The CEA and the easement program provide “one tool in the tool box”, so to speak, in helping to fulfill the county’s long-term vision and goals for preserving agriculture, open space and protecting the important natural resources in the county.

Farming and tourism are the two largest economic drivers in Shenandoah County, making the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program a direct investment in our farmers, our local farm economy, tourism and in the economic development of Shenandoah County. When thinking about why it is important to protect our land, think about why it is you live in Shenandoah County. What do you cherish? Why do people travel from across the state, nation and the world to visit Shenandoah County? The farms and scenic landscapes we cherish and others come to visit are critical to the low taxes we enjoy and to the high quality of life we have.

The county’s Conservation Easement Program is also an investment in future tax savings for the citizens of this county. The small public investment in purchased easements generates a big savings in public spending long-term. Roads, schools, water, sewer and other services cost far less in and around towns compared to serving development in remote rural areas. Studies in Virginia and across the nation confirm again and again that open space land costs far less for local governments to serve than residential developments. By ensuring the availability of farmland, the county strengthens the local agricultural economy, ensures our tax rates remain low and still meet the needs of its citizens.

A study by the American Farmland Trust, based on 2011 statistics from The Virginia Statistics Center, shows for every $1 in revenue generated, there is a significant difference in the cost of services between residential and working/rural lands. For example, it shows that in Clarke County they save 85 cents on the dollar for open lands and lose 26 cents on the dollar for residential lands.

The CEA is very proud of our track record for matching county funds with state and federal sources. With $100,000 in county funding, we were able to leverage over $900,000 in state and federal grants and donated easement value. This is a 9 to 1 match on our investment. The authority is confident that if given the chance, we can continue to leverage county dollars at or above this level.

Land preservation through conservation easements is not unique to Shenandoah County nor is it unique to Virginia. Across the nation, counties and states have realized the importance of land preservation for protecting important resources and reducing costs in the future. Because of that, the federal government and the state of Virginia have funds specifically allocated for land preservation and just a relatively small local match by our county qualifies us for these funds. If these dollars are not invested in our county, they will be invested in other localities across the state or they will be reallocated to other states across the nation. This program is a good way for some of the state and federal taxes paid by Shenandoah County residences to be reinvested in our local economy.

On behalf of the members of the CEA, I invite any interested citizen or Board of Supervisors member to join us at one our monthly meetings to learn more about this important program. A vote “No” to Shenandoah County’s Purchase of Development Rights program is a disservice to our community.

Kelly Watkinson is the chairwoman of the Conservation Easement Authority. The CE A is a board-appointed authority that oversees and makes recommendations regarding the county’s Conservation Easement Program. For more information on the CEA, visit www.shenandoahcountyva.us/committees/cea.View image