Commentary: Shenandoah is one of 22 counties with PDR program

By Andy Sorrell

I am writing to provide some additional information in response to a recent editorial regarding purchase of development rights (PDR) programs and related efforts in Shenandoah County. Since 2007, the Office of Farmland Preservation in the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has worked with local governments, farm and conservation organizations, and other interested parties to establish local PDR programs. We provide state matching funds to these local programs.

The PDR programs compensate landowners who permanently preserve their land by voluntarily placing a perpetual conservation easement on the property. Currently, Virginia has 22 local PDR programs, 18 of which have had some level of local funding available over the past few years. Shenandoah County is one of those 18 counties.

Local PDR programs are funded by various methods throughout the Commonwealth, but all share one thing in common. Financial support must come from a variety of sources, not just local, state or federal government, and not exclusively through private dollars. That mix is a key component of the program.

About 10 years ago, a state advisory committee examined the issues and developed the original model guidelines for PDR efforts. They determined that any state matching funds must require local buy-in to ensure that the locality is an active partner in the easement acquisition effort. The committee decided that it was crucial for localities to develop their own programs and to provide some of the funding for them.

No locality is required to develop a local PDR program, but only those localities that develop a program and provide local matching funds are eligible for state matching funds.

As of March 31, the Virginia Farmland Preservation Fund administered by the Office of Farmland Preservation spent more than $6.5 million in state matching funds to permanently protect 7,100 acres. This involved 53 conservation easements in partnership with 14 local PDR programs. The state’s matching funds leveraged more than $8.3 million dollars in funding contributed by localities and an additional $4.2 million from federal and other partners.

While the state provides matching funds to certified local PDR programs, each locality determines which properties to protect. The state does not make that decision. Localities must also develop their own system for determining what property features rank highest, whether it’s good soil quality or the existence of agricultural operations on the property. In other words, each locality decides what program mechanics and ranking systems work best for them.

The Office of Farmland Preservation is ready to work with any Virginia locality interested in preserving working farm and forest land through local PDR programs or other preservation tools and techniques.

Andy Sorrell is coordinator, Office of Farmland Preservation, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services