WOODSTOCK -- Shenandoah County’s Conservation Easement Authority is asking the Board of Supervisors to provide a supplemental appropriation of nearly $120,000 to the committee so it can capitalize on an upcoming state grant opportunity.
According to a letter to the board from Kim Woodwell, the Shenandoah County coordinator of the Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley, the CEA is requesting funding in the amount of $142,000 that it can use to apply for the Virginia Office of Farmland Preservation grant program, which provides a one-to-one match. The county, by way of a resolution that supervisors adopted in February, has already committed $25,000 in rollback taxes to the CEA this fiscal year, meaning the Board of Supervisors would need to supplement that with an additional $117,000 to meet the CEA’s request.
Funding the CEA now, Woodwell explained to supervisors during their Tuesday board meeting, would allow it to meet the upcoming deadline for the state grant and to “do what it was established to do in 2008, which is to secure voluntary conservation easements on the county’s prime farm and forest land.”
Supervisors will consider the appropriation at their Oct. 26 meeting.
Woodwell explained to supervisors this week that the state has allocated $1 million to the Office of Farmland Preservation matching grant program, which she noted is “about four times what is normally in the state’s coffers.” She added that it was her understanding that $142,000 was expected to be the maximum amount for which localities could apply for the grant.
Woodwell said the money the county receives through the grant would need to be spent within two years and indicated that the county wouldn’t have any trouble spending that money in that timeframe.
“I’ve talked to many of our land-trust partners here in the valley, including the Valley Conservation Council and the battlefield foundation,” Woodwell said, “and … they’ve got landowners lined up that just need this cash to get them over the finish line.”
County funding of the CEA had been virtually nonexistent for a five-year period prior to 2021. The Board of Supervisors in 2014 passed a resolution allocating up to $50,000 in rollback taxes to the CEA each year, though that resolution was rescinded in 2016.
In February, supervisors unanimously passed a similar resolution that allocated $25,000 to the CEA and $25,000 to the county’s Industrial Development Authority. That resolution allowed the board to commit to the CEA this fiscal year $25,000 of the $51,984 in rollback taxes that the county collected in fiscal year 2021.
According to board meeting documents, Shenandoah County collected a total of $241,766 in rollback taxes from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2021.
Rollback taxes are collected when parcels that were in the land-use taxation program, which incentivizes putting land into agricultural use in exchange for tax breaks for landowners, undergo certain changes in use and/or no longer qualify for the program. In those instances, landowners are charged a “rollback” tax amounting to the tax dollars saved on the non-qualifying acreage for six years with interest and penalty.
Dee Hockman, chair of the CEA, joined Woodwell in addressing supervisors on Tuesday and reminded the board that farming and tourism are “two of the largest economic drivers in this county” and that “any investment in the county in land preservation is a direct investment to our farmers.”
Hockman also noted that in 2011, the CEA turned the county’s $100,000 investment into $900,000 through various state and federal grants.
“I can’t think of a financial decision that can generate as much revenue for such a positive purpose as this designation,” Hockman said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Baker spoke favorably of the CEA’s request on Tuesday, noting that the Shenandoah County’s Comprehensive Plan states that the county should remain rural and agricultural.
“If we’re going to do that, we’ve got to have tools to make this happen. And this is one of the tools, to try to preserve land because there’s gonna be as we move forward, probably, more pressure,” Baker said. “And we’ve talked about … for young people to have an opportunity to even go out here and farm, one of the tools is they might be able to purchase their land using a conservation easement. Otherwise on an open market it’s almost impossible. I would support this one-time thing for $142,000 because moving back, if we could’ve gotten that $50,000 a year then we’re talking almost $300,000 plus in that timeframe.”
Supervisor Dennis Morris also said he was “good” with the CEA’s request, stating, “What better way to spend rollback dollars?”
Baker, Morris and fellow supervisors Josh Stephens, Brad Pollack, Karl Roulston and Tim Taylor were present for Tuesday’s meeting.