WOODSTOCK – Members of the Agriculture and Forestal District Advisory Committee are staring down the cause of a large decrease in district land in previous years.

Agriculture and forestal districts provide protections and benefits for landowners who want to designate their land for strict farm use. The districts, which are optional, are renewed every 10 years when landowners are free to withdraw their land without any questions asked.

If landowners want to withdraw their land at any time besides during the renewal period, or after a previous owner died, the heirs have two years to submit a letter to the district committee stating they wish to withdraw the land. The request must be approved by the committee, county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

Phil Bowman, committee chairman, said during a meeting this week that Shenandoah County, which has more land in the districts than any other jurisdiction in the valley, has seen a large drop in participation in recent years. Rather than rolling owners into the districts during renewal periods, the county has been expecting landowners to request to stay in the district, rather than only asking them to leave.

The result, Bowman said, was that in 2016, while 11 districts were going through the renewal process, roughly 40% of the land in the districts was lost.

Doug French, a committee member, said he leaned toward supporting a revised policy of requiring a written letter stating a landowner wants to keep his or her land within the district. The letter, French said, provides some kind of “recall” that the committee can point to and track who is and isn’t a member of the district.

“I’d like them to have to say they want to stay in,” French said. “It’s difficult from losing land,” but talking to landowners and checking in with them is cumbersome.

A previous county planner made the change, in part, members said, to address issues of family members inheriting land they didn’t know was protected by the Agriculture and Forestal District.

Tyler Hinkle, the new county planner who took over last month, said that as he read the code, the authority over entering, leaving and remaining in the district rested with the landowner more than anyone else.

Hinkle said the committee is looking to work within the guidelines of the state code but wants to make the process as easy for the landowners and county as possible.

“I think we’re definitely going to be looking into following the code rather than what may have been the practice in the past,” Hinkle said. “That’s the first time it’s come to my attention that we have been doing things wrong, and it was an intentional thing to be doing things wrong. We certainly want to do everything we can to follow the code.”

While the benefits from protections include relaxed nuisance ordinances, an extra review in cases of eminent domain disputes and tax rate protection, the restrictions on the land prevent almost all development that could be considered “more intensive use” including housing — besides a home for the landowners who are farming — business uses or travel.

Withdrawing land from a district is a tricky process. Monday’s meeting started with a request to withdraw a 26-acre patch from the Mount Jackson Agriculture and Forestal District that committee members denied.

Withdrawal, outside of the death of the landowner or during a renewal period, requires the landowner to show “good and reasonable cause” that keeping the land in the district creates a “hardship” for the owner.

– Contact Max Thornberry at mthornberry@nvdaily.com