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Local money absent as regional interest grows - HeraldCourier.com: News

Conservation Easements Local money absent as regional interest grows

Washington Co. recently decided to disband development rights committee due to economy to protect farm, forests

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Posted: Sunday, February 9, 2014 9:04 pm | Updated: 6:49 pm, Mon Feb 10, 2014.

ABINGDON, Va. — The act of placing land into conservation easements in this part of the state continues to grow, even as Washington County’s Board of Supervisors recently disbanded its Purchase of Development Rights committee.

More than 11 percent of the land placed into a state conservation easement last year is in Southwest Virginia, with a combined 4,900 acres from Wythe County westward, according to statistics kept by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the state agency that has managed easements since 1968.

In total, nearly 730,000 acres of land has been set aside in the state for purposes of farming and forestry, records show. In Washington County, more than 2,900 acres has been designated as an easement.

In a conservation easement, landowners decide to set aside the land to protect forests, streams and farmland. Subdividing the land and the number of dwellings permitted is restricted, development is restricted, active dumps and billboards are prohibited and some of the gas, oil and mineral rights are forfeited, said Neal Kilgore, a conservation easement specialist in Abingdon.

“The reason that this is important is because … we saw about 50 years ago the best farmlands and forests were being decimated,” he said. “The countryside was just going away and you don’t have to be genius to understand as farms decrease and urban areas increase, there will be some point where we’re not able to sustain it. Food and wood products provide benefits to everyone.”

Washington County got into the easement game in 2011, with $30,000 put into the county’s purchase development rights program to be used to help place some property near Glade Spring into easement. The Board of Supervisors voted in December to move the money into the larger pot of state and local funds to help place a 168-acre farm owned by James Johnson into easement. The property, in Johnson’s family for the past 50 years, will continue to be used for agricultural purposes, but development rights are restricted.

“It’s to preserve the land for future generations,” Johnson said. “The Board of Supervisors saw some foresight in preserving some farmland for future generations and for the good of agriculture and hopefully they’ll be able to reinstate [the purchase of development rights program] later on.”

Johnson added that the farmland that was preserved represents three generations of his family’s hard work and livelihood. The farm near Glade Spring has livestock and crops on it, he said.

“We see agricultural land gobbled up every day and it’s being turned into other uses,” he said. “By keeping it in agriculture, it will always be a productive farm to contribute to the county. It’s important to keep our agriculture; it’s the largest industry in the county.”

In January, the supervisors voted to dissolve the committee that would handle purchase development rights.

“I know we did pass that money through last meeting, but I just don’t know if there’s going to be the will of this board to continue that program, and certainly, if money is so tight, I don’t think in the near future we’re going to have money to put in that program,” said Bill Gibson, who made the motion at the Jan. 14 meeting to dissolve the committee.

The vote was unanimous. Currently, no money has been set aside for purchase of development rights, but supervisors did not close the door to the program entirely.

“If for some reason, we do see the money come up, we can revive this committee,” board Chairman Phillip McCall said at the meeting.

Wayne Turley, the county’s purchase of development rights administrator, said this week that in order to get the county involved with an easement again, the Board of Supervisors, a business or an individual would have to come up with some money to offer to the program.

The difference between the purchase of development rights program and the state program, Turley said, is the local program matches local funding with farm and ranchlands protection program money, while the state program largely offers tax incentives to landowners, which can be sold or given away.

“Currently, there’s no funds available” in the local program, Turley said. “And realistically, the chances of having another one are pretty slim … everyone’s having to tighten their belts now.”

But, he said, the structure of the program is in place, and it wouldn’t take another two years should someone be interested.

Kilgore said in the past several months he’s been getting multiple requests per week to go out and look at property to see if it would be eligible for the program.

“It slowed down when the economy was at its bottom, but I’ve noticed an increase in requests in the past three to six months,” Kilgore said. “It’s kept me hopping to keep up with it all.”

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