Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) has proposed that the county help with the cost of setting up conservation easements, lowering the cost to private landowners to protect their land from development.
“We have to do better on conservation easements,” Buffington said.
Conservation easements are agreements between landowners and the government or a nonprofit to permanently limit development and subdivision on a property. That agreement is recorded with county land records, meaning the agreement follows the property’s deed. According to the county’s website, there are more than 65,000 acres of land protected by conservation easements in Loudoun.
Buffington said his program would help defray the cost of creating those easements.
“Initially the Board [of Supervisors] would have some level of funding each year to assist folks in the rural parts of our county with the up-front cost of putting their land into conservation easement,” Buffington said. “Because those costs can range anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, so that’s a barrier to a lot of folks.”
Those costs include appraisals and financial and legal services, among other expenses including a fee or required donation to a conservation organization as part of the transfer. Buffington said helping with those costs could help landowners willing to donate their land, but without the cash on hand to do it.
Piedmont Environmental Council Director of Conservation Mike Kane said he has seen that get in the way of creating new conservation easements.
“What you have to keep in mind when landowners are donating conservation easements is, they’re donating their ability to develop that land in any great intensity in the future, and then on top of that they’re asked to pay for the right to make that donation,” Kane said.
Buffington’s proposal would set up a $150,000 fund from the county’s year-end budget balance. That money would be used to cover up to 50 percent or $15,000—whichever is less—for a landowner putting land into a conservation easement overseen by a qualified nonprofit as determined by the IRS. The state has additional rules for what nonprofits can manage a conservation easement.
“Conservation of the county’s land and resources is critical to Loudoun County in any number of respects,” Kane said. “But at its most basic level, Loudoun really has a unique combination of natural, historic, cultural and scenic resources that, second to none, are worthy of conservation.”
And on top of that, he said, is a lot of dirt.
“A lot of people don’t think about soil that much—‘oh, we better protect that dirt’—but the reality is, the soils are essential to all the stories that we can tell,” Kane said. Loudoun’s undeveloped spaces are important to the views, the history, the tourism, and the farmers and agricultural economy.
“So preserving just one little square of a larger landscape is a part of the story, but if you really want people to take advantage of the resources there, you need to work on a broader scale than that,” Kane said. “Conservation easements are a big part of doing that.”
Kane once managed the county’s Purchase of Development Rights program, under which property owners could sell the rights to develop their property to the county—making money off the property without selling it to a developer, and protecting the property from development in the long term. That program was abruptly defunded in 2004 when a newly-elected Board of Supervisors took dramatic steps to reverse the previous board’s planning—particularly around conservation—at its first meeting. Although many of the 2004 board’s actions have since been reversed, and the county still has a Purchase of Development Rights program on the books, funding has never been restored to the program.
Although he had not yet seen the details of Buffington’s proposal, he commended the idea. He said it could clear the way for people who “believe strongly in the public benefit of land conservation.”
“If they can knock down one small barrier to allowing landowners to go forward and willingly donate an easement, that’s a good thing, and the county gets tremendous returns on that,” Kane said.
Buffington’s program is also proposed with eligibility requirements, including that the property in question can be subdivided under current zoning. The county could provide a commitment to cover costs, but would not actually pay out any money until the conservation easement is recorded with the Loudoun Clerk of the Court.
The proposal is also a manifesto for the value of the rural economy. It cites figures and trends including a 69 percent increase in the number of homes in Loudoun’s rural policy area since 2001, and the loss of almost 30,000 acres of Loudoun farmland from 2002 to 2012 according to the USDA Census of Agriculture. That same census shows most of the loss occurred between 2002 and 2007, shedding more than 22,000 acres in that five-year stretch.
Buffington also argued for the rural area’s value to both Loudoun’s identity as a 240-year-old farming community—pointing out the phrase “preserving the best of Loudoun County’s unique historical significance and heritage while positioning the County to be in the forefront of progressive enterprise” in the Board of Supervisors’ adopted strategic goals—and its economy. He cited figures from the county’s Rural Economic Development Council estimating that every dollar of sales from rural businesses triggers another 25 cents in sales and 20 cents in earnings at businesses throughout the county.
The proposal comes as the first phase of Envision Loudoun, the county’s ongoing work to revise its comprehensive plan wraps up. The 26-member stakeholders committee that guided the first draft of the new comprehensive plan held its last meeting Monday, July 9. That plan includes in its vision statement a commitment to a permanent rural area with working agricultural lands and preserved open space. That work also comes against a backdrop of increasing encroachment by development into the transition policy area that divides the county’s suburban east and rural west, such as a recently approved data center on the banks of Goose Creek near Leesburg.
Supervisors are expected to take the easement program up at their meeting July 19. Learn more about the county’s conservation easement program at loudoun.gov/conservationeasements.
This article has been updated to include the full print version that appeared in the July 12 edition of Loudoun Now.