NEW MARKET – Town Council members are facing the constricting expansion of future developments as parcels of land in and around town are bought up and placed in conservation easements.
Conservation easements, Julie Langan, Virginia Department of Historic Resources director and state historic preservation officer, told council members Tuesday evening, are often used as a trade for grant funding to buy land.
In recent months, some council members have pushed back against requests from the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation to place developable land into easements to establish a walking trail and greenway space.
Due to its history, Virginia has a unique easement program, Langan said, that operates more independently than most programs in the country.
“Virginia has a lot of history to preserve,” Langan said. “As a result, not only do we have more status than the equivalent offices in some other states, but we are also one of the largest.”
Langan’s department holds roughly 650 easements on more than 40,000 acres of land throughout Virginia, she said. Each of those easements is a legally binding contract between the state and the property owner that lasts in perpetuity — regardless of how many times the property changes hands.
Langan told council members her department does not specify what the property owner can do with their land if it has an easement, but there are restrictions written into the new easements that prohibit doing damage to the historical integrity of the property.
Tim Palmer, a member of both the Town Council and Planning Commission, said he is in favor of the foundation creating a walking trail but does not want to see swathes of land put into easements in perpetuity.
For landowners — and potential landowners — to place or explore putting their property into an easement, the Department of Historical Resources requires either a letter of endorsement from the local government or a clear condition in the comprehensive plan that supports the easement, Langan said.
When the Battlefield Foundation approached the Town Council last year with a request to place some land into a perpetual easement, Palmer opposed the endorsement.
“That word [perpetuity] does not exist in our comprehensive plan,” Palmer said.
The town’s comprehensive plan does establish a desire for greenways and trails, but the Battlefield Foundation needed the town’s approval for the easements they requested.
“I can’t write a letter interpreting your comprehensive plan,” John Hutchison, director of conservation for the Battlefield Foundation, told council members. “They have to have a letter from the local government interpreting their comprehensive plan to allow the easement, or we don’t get to play.”
Despite previous support for easements in town, some council members began to wonder if they are a double-edged sword for a town as historic as New Market.
In 1993, the National Park Service produced a report on historic Civil War sites, Langan said. For a battlefield or other piece of land to qualify for an easement, it must occur in that study, which was updated in 2007. Because the battle of New Market roved through what is now the town, most of the town and its limits can be placed in perpetual easements.
Langan told council members it is important for them to prioritize which pieces of land they want to preserve because departments do not consider how much land has been absorbed into easements.
Councilwoman Peggy Harkness supported previous easements but said that the more she hears about conservation easements, the more uneasy she becomes. She said she sees historical preservation and conservation easements choking off future development.
“I don’t blame people for wanting to have their properties preserved,” Harkness said. “This, to us, is a real problem that we’re facing as we look at what could perhaps threaten our downtown and any of the economic development opportunities we look at.”
Councilman Peter Hughes suggested his colleagues take Langan’s advice and make a list of areas and properties the town would like to see preserved.
Todd Walters, the town manager, suggested council members take a look at the comprehensive plan and ensure there is language broad enough to support easements generally but also make sure there is a requirement for a letter of support to accompany all requests.
“I think you should have a statement in there that you know New Market is battlefield land,” Walters said. “But as long as it’s not specific, that letter will have to come to you for a vote each time.”